And this is it! The story is over! Warning for quite a lot of character deaths (including main characters dying of age-related complications right at the very end of the chapter) but! It is a Happy Ending!
Direct thee to Peace Epilogue
Uchiha Tokimi runs towards the screaming, Shimura Danzo keeping pace beside her, both of them in their new Police-issue fūinjutsu-reinforced indigoes and armour-weave gaiters, kote over forearms securing the sleeves of their respective clan haori, the standard orange sashes keeping everything neatly in place. It's not her first time running towards terrified screaming –Tokimi firmly suppresses the indelible memory of shattered buildings, blasted earth and the bloody smear that she only later learned had been her uncle Hijiri– and after a decade and a half of diffusing fights, hauling drunks off to calm down in the cells and listening to testimonies, she knows how these things go.
It's barely been seconds and more people are screaming. They reach the Kurama district at the same time as another patrol pair –Akimichi Torifu and Hyūga Hiyake, thank all the kami– take a split-second to pull barrier seals and suppression nets from their hold-alls –the belt-pouch version of the Uchiha Clan umbrella bags, only feasible for smaller or foldable items but with equal overall capacity– and then dash down the main street towards the source of the noise.
There is a lean, ash-white crocodile in a mangled azure kimono sprawled in the middle of an intersection, seven metres long and shaking a dead body in its jaws. A very dead body; the head –long hair tangled in a comb, possibly female– is on the far side of the street, and half an arm still in a Kurama-marked sleeve is discarded on the near side of the bloody splatter painted up the wall of a stationer's shop and across the cobbles.
More bloody spatter is painted across the crocodile.
Most of the screaming is coming from people fleeing; Tokimi ignores Torifu and Hiyake keeping other shinobi back from the scene and focuses on the crocodile.
The crocodile whose chakra feels awfully familiar and has a small, wailing crane-print bundle lying far too close to its front right foot. That ruined kimono across its shoulders with a printed cloud pattern is also very familiar.
"Toki?" She doesn't glance at Danzo; she knows he's backing her up, a step back and to the side.
"Hail the Uchiha compound; we need Oba-sama or Madara-sama down here now." She's heard the stories about Kita-ba's initial Mangekyō transformation, and all the other stories about Toyotama and what sets them off. She's going to walk into the danger zone because she is a police officer and that is her job, but she's doing so well aware that she might lose a limb talking her cousin down. She'd much rather not have her arm bitten off, but there's even odds of it. Hopefully her cousin will be satisfied by the dismemberment already completed and not feel inclined to turn a one-off into a spree.
"Stay back," she adds; "this is a clan thing."
"Tokimi." Danzo hates it when she makes him stand down and be rearguard, even though he knows he's better at securing the scene than she is. They've re-written half of police procedure with his identification and security fūinjutsu; when he eventually retires from street patrol there'll be a senior forensics position with his name on it even if Hidaka-ji has to create it for him.
"We're de-escalating remember, I'm less likely to be seen as a threat." It's why the Police continue to allow their members to wear clan colours: a shinobi having a meltdown is less likely to lash out at somebody who is clearly a fellow clansman.
"If you lose a limb I will carve 'I told you so' on the prosthetic replacement." He does step back and reach for the speaker seal on his collar though, which is what matters.
"So noted." Tokimi puts her seals and net away, straightens her spine and lets her chakra coil around her, no longer tightly contained under her skin, then scuffs a sandal on the cobbles and steps forward.
The crocodile turns, daintily lifting a clawed foot over the wailing, blood-spattered bundle as it settles in to eyeball Tokimi. The visible eye is red, two straight black lines bracketing the pupil rotating slowly.
Tokimi wishes her clansmen could be a little less dramatic about completely losing their shit. Yes, betrayal is a terrible thing, but this? This is excessive.
"Look, I don't care who that was or why you did it," she says frankly, "that's a problem for the clan courts. I just want to make sure the baby's okay. Will you let me do that?" Her uncle's always been very clear that the job of the police force is to de-escalate, not to judge. Judging is the duty of the Clan Heads or their representatives; the Police are there to break up fights, prevent further damage, calm nerves and assure everybody that they will be heard.
The wani does not step back, but its posture settles slightly. Tokimi takes this as permission and crouches down, half-crawling towards the baby –knees bent and poised so as to launch herself up and away should anything go wrong– and very carefully tugs the swaddled bundle out from under her cousin's crocodilian lower jaw.
The baby seems fine to a superficial check –all police learn the yin diagnostic– and then Tokimi realises that for an infant Kurama, this child looks a lot like her baby brother Kichō did when he was a month or so old; the Kurama generally go for lighter, browner hair colours than the Uchiha's common blue-black, and non-Uchiha babies usually have blue or brown eyes at this age, not ink-black.
She glances at the wani, at the mangled corpse lying within arm's reach –female, recently pregnant by what she can see of the mangled body through the gaping and torn kimono– and dares to turn across the street to where Torifu and his partner are firmly keeping incautious bystanders contained.
"Do we have an ID on our victim?" She asks him, using the speaker seals so as not to broadcast her inquiry to all and sundry.
"Kurama Shinonome; the baby is her new daughter Kanatoko," Torifu replies at once. "When I asked about next of kin they mentioned her parents, but clammed up when I asked about the baby's father."
Shinonome, whom Tokimi's younger brother Kōki had been very smitten with until suddenly ending the relationship last spring and refusing to discuss why. Sukumo had been rather worried about him in her quiet, observant way, and had spent four months dragging him along to her calligraphy classes and making him help out after Madara-ji-sama temporarily banned him from missions following a near-miss. It had helped a lot.
Tokimi had thought there'd been a bad break-up, possibly Shinonome refusing to leave her clan when her otōto proposed marriage, but had not expected this. Every woman in Konoha is provided with a contraception seal upon reaching fourteen, which they can activate and de-activate at will; accidental pregnancies are not possible, something which has been thoroughly tested by a great many people.
She rocks from side to side, trying to soothe the unfortunate evidence of potential bloodline theft. This may well go down as completely justified murder, but that is no excuse to skimp on proper procedure along the way.
Tokimi twists, as does the wani: Oba-sama is standing in the middle of the main street, her everyday kimono patterned with ragged arrays of geometric shapes almost like moth wings, all in shades of brown and gold with white accents, shibori-marked indigo dōnuki peeking out at the collar and cuffs, belted by an obi in rich green embroidered with silvery frost patterns. Her rigid fan is held loosely in her right hand, the edge of the swallow-painted paper curve just tapping her chin, and her elegantly-styled hair bears only a few faint streaks of silver, which always makes Tokimi think of kintsugi.
She doesn't look like a lady who is nearly fifty-two; Madara-ji-sama is considerably greyer and regularly cracks jokes about his wife's apparent agelessness.
"I do understand," Oba-sama adds, voice softening, "but I trust you've noticed by now that this hasn't made the situation better."
The wani makes a deep rumbling sound, gaze dropping.
"Tokimi-kun, would you accompany us back up to the compound since imprisonment is not going to be conventionally possible for some time?" Oba-sama's eyes fall to the baby, which is quieting in response to Tokimi's soothing. "I will of course not attempt to take custody of the baby, but since it clearly was what motivated the transformation it should be kept close until my daughter has calmed down again."
"I should come too, Uchiha-sama," Danzo says firmly from behind Tokimi. "Police partners are required to stay within sight of one another while on-duty."
"Then we shall not leave until others arrive to relieve you of your other duties, Danzo-kun," Oba-sama agrees pleasantly, fan rising to cover her mouth. "Tokimi-kun, can you see where the rest of my daughter's clothing went?" Oba-sama calls almost everybody her children's age or younger 'kun' and isn't going to stop just because her oldest son is nearly thirty with two children of his own.
Glancing around, Tokimi locates a pair of sandals, a cream and orange chrysanthemum-and-bamboo patterned obi and a pair of hair-sticks among the iron-and-rot-scented detritus, all smeared with red, brown and unidentifiable dark fleshy blobs. "Some of it, Oba-sama." There are no tabi or under-layers.
"She'll still be wearing the rest." Oba-sama moves closer, geta quiet on the packed stone. "Oh dear, what a mess. I won't make you wash them yourself, Sukumo-chan, since it is the first time." The implication being, that if there is next time then Tokimi's cousin will spend the aftermath bent over a sink or washtub trying to get bloodstains out of silk.
It's an eminently practical threat. Tokimi has struggled with lifting bloody smears from the silk lining on her coat cuffs and that is hard enough even with how they are sealed against staining, but this much silk? All soaked in gore and other things besides? Oba-sama will be paying the laundresses extra if they manage to salvage anything at all. Never mind the tears in the kimono that will need to be cunningly sewn and then embroidered over to hide the join if it is ever to be worn as a top layer again...
A week later all the Kurama elders and a further fifteen adult clansmen are executed; Tokimi can't say she's surprised. Had they really thought that hiding this was the right idea? If Shinonome had come up with this idea all by herself they should have denounced her at once and handed her over to Otōsan, as he is the Lineage Head the offence was committed against; if it had been the elders' idea on the other hand then somebody should have pointed out that acting against one's liege was treasonable and this counted. Tokimi can't understand how they thought they would ever get away with this; she is also privately, vindictively pleased that Sukumo is not even censured for her actions.
Her cousin is helping Kōki to parent his unexpected new daughter; Tokimi has money on her little brother finally noticing that his two-years-older cousin considers him her most precious person within the next year. Hopefully he'll propose in a timely manner, even though that will mean possibly stepping down as Yatagarasu Heir in favour of Kichō now that Sukumo is Toyotama Heir; it's not like her brother ever really wanted to be Lineage Head. Kichō's got their mother's confidence though and is doing well in his studies, so he'll manage those duties just fine.
"But, but! I'm only twenty-five!"
Madara can't help his fond smile. "Shirakami, I was twenty-one and my father had to pour several years of necessary education directly into mine and Izuna's brains with his sharingan as he lay dying. You've learned everything in good time; you're already running the Outguard with Shinmoe, Makoto, Naka-Fishtail and Kujū. This is just making things official." Madara's even imparted a good number of historical sharingan memories regardless; Sukumo's genjutsu seals have let him archive the rest against future need.
"Your mother and I are not going anywhere," Madara points out gently. "Just moving into the west wing with Tobirama, so you and Maya can have the main hall to yourselves for when your child is born. We'll be here to talk to if you ever need advice, but I know you can do this, Shirakami. Takahara's there to advise you on politics and you know Mitama took over Homeguard matters seven years ago so your uncle Minakata could spend more time with his children and mourn his mother and brother." The brief, brutally intense war against Earth and Lightning had started with multiple clay bombs exploding in the middle of the village, killing elders, warriors and police alike as they desperately shielded civilians and children, but had ended decisively barely fourteen months later with Hidaka and his officers demonstrating that police action was vastly superior to warfare when it came to putting a decisive end to hostilities. The Water and Wind shinobi who'd joined the war alongside Fire had been extremely impressed.
They still lost so many though. Hijiri and Kanmuri on that bloody noon, Otofuke and Satomi to assassination on the road between Wind and Earth as they returned from a mission on the same day, then Eniwa, Naosuke, Tomamu, Naka-hawknose, Shironushi and so many other seasoned warriors to the battlefields before those going through the new police field-training were ready for deployment; Tōka and Chika, Tobirama's cousin and his former bride, are just two more names on that long, long list. Sarutobi Nisuke and his brother Sasuke are also dead, as is Nisuke's oldest Kagetaka, so young Sadayū had to step up as clan head at twenty-four. Sasuke's son Hiruzen almost got himself killed in holding action alongside Uchiha Memuro, Kurama Sekiran, Aburame Pata and Inuzuka Obito, caught near the Hot Water border until Izuna personally led a mixed warrior and policing force to rescue them; Memuro managed to hold Hiruzen's shattered ribcage together so he didn't suffocate before more medics arrived, but it was a damn near thing.
It was Shironushi dying that did for Ohabari-oba; she did not last the week.
Shirakami bites his lower lip, which is frankly adorable despite him being taller and broader than Madara these days. His main weapon is an ōdachi-length nagamaki, although he's equally brilliant with wire and fire jutsu. Madara knows Kita finds it rather delightful how her third son looks like her father writ large, towering over everybody else in the clan bar Mitama's wife Dene. Shirakami's own wife Maya, Yōko's daughter, barely comes up to the top of his shoulder; they're an adorable couple.
"Really?" His son asks eventually, voice small.
Madara softens. "Really, Shira-kun. I have every faith in you." He's slowing down, not much just yet but he can feel it in his bones. He can't quite keep up with his eyes anymore, his bones and scars ache when wet weather comes in and his hair is now solidly grey. He's fifty-seven, with six grandchildren and another three on the way –Sukumo is also expecting after marrying Kōki last autumn and Adatara has just confessed to being pregnant– and really, he's tired. Izuna's already handed over political responsibilities to Takahara, although he still hosts events sometimes; Minakata and his wife Fumi celebrated his stepping down from Homeguard head in favour of Mitama by having another two children –eighteen-year-old Kotachi-kun and fourteen-year-old Tsumashima-chan have been joined by six-year-old Tagitsu-chan and four-year-old Tagori-chan– and even Hidaka, who's still in his early forties, is starting to look around for a likely young clansman to succeed him as Police Chief.
Adatara is pregnant by Shibuki, but both have made it clear they're not marrying –in fact Shibuki is currently back in Water Country doing who-knows-what– and she is entirely preoccupied with coat-making; what with so many large families in the clan now and so much silk and wealth, they've changed the rules slightly so it's not just the Amaterasu Lineage where more than Head and Heir can have patchwork coats. Now all siblings and children of a Lineage Head get them upon turning sixteen.
Ashitaka is a wild warrior child, seventeen years old and currently out terrorising smugglers along the southern coast with her squad. She probably will settle at some point, but it doesn't seem likely to be any time soon. Minami meanwhile is giving everybody headaches by being a strong Water Elemental and looking far too much like Tobirama while having all of his mother's quiet wickedness. Admittedly his sisiter-in-law Midori's youngest Bizan is also water-natured, implying that it might in fact be something that pops up regularly in the Toyotama Lineage, but combined with Minami's looks… well. He's doing very well in Outguard training, already being partnered regularly with Nara Yasumi as they work very well together indeed. Somewhat unorthodox from what Madara's heard from Hikaku, who still supervises Outguard training despite having retired from active duty, but very effective.
Megata is also water-natured and has apprenticed herself to a potter; she mainly uses her affinity for ink-painting and calligraphy, scorning brushes entirely, and is determinedly learning to use it to shape wet clay as well. Her work is very beautiful and Madara has many fine examples to show off, including a wall scroll of the willow by the pond covered in an unseasonably late spring snow and a slightly lopsided trio of everyday teacups that were her first fired pieces. Toyouke is still in school –she's only eleven– and has made fast friends with a Mizuchi in the year above her; Madara suspects she's attached, but that's no great hardship. Young Orochimaru's a sweet boy and his mother was there on that terrible mission to Water chasing the bloodline thieves; Nure's a good swordswoman and has a delightfully biting wit.
Kita is still as smoothly graceful as ever, the only indicators of age the laugh-lines in the corners of her eyes and the scattered silver threads in her hair; she looks ten years younger than him, not just three. Tobirama with his already white hair is equally ageless, although he too is starting to move rather more cautiously in the mornings and contorts himself less outrageously when sleeping. He too has a grandchild: Makuma has married an Uzumaki and lives with her and their toddler daughter Inagami in Uzushio; Yukino has also married –to Tenshu of all people, who surprised everybody by deciding aged fourteen that he wanted to be a farmer– and Madara suspects there'll be more grandchildren there soon enough.
Izuna also has grandchildren: hilariously, Ena has married Madoma and they have two adorable little girls, who due to the various technicalities in the Uchiha-Senju treaty belong to both clans for all that their official paperwork only says 'Uchiha'. His little brother is terribly grumpy about his bloodline mixing with 'the kudzu,' but he loves his daughter too much to refuse her anything. Shinmoe is yet to show a particular interest in anybody, but he's only twenty-five. There's time, so long as he's not set his heart on exceeding Kagutsuchi in the child stakes; the Kōjin Head and his wife Sayomi have ten living children already and seem determined to add to that number further!
His son sets his shoulders, bringing Madara back to the present. "I won't let you down, Chichi-ue," he promises, face set.
Madara hugs him. "You could never," he promises. "You've always given everything you have." Konohagakure is so much more than he'd ever hoped to be able to entrust to his children and he knows they will keep his dream of peace alive and flourishing.
Yoshino isn't sure what she wants to be when she grows up. She doesn't want to be a farmer like her father, but she doesn't have her mother's itchy feet either, not like her big sister does. Tameno was very clearly born to be a shinobi, fierce and carefree and utterly confident in her skills.
Yoshino isn't. She's not entirely terrible at the combat style that her mother teaches her when she's at home, but is rather better at the one her grandfather patiently walks her through on his weekly visits –which her father comments on when he sees her practicing, but she mostly ignores him because her father is a farmer not a shinobi, not even a retired shinobi– and she's okay with Earth jutsu and genjutsu and wire. Grandfather gets her the good Uchiha battle-wire and helps her refine her control enough to make it dance around her, pressing a finger to her lips when she asks where he learned Uchiha tricks and gently making her promise not to teach anybody else.
"My spouse agreed I could teach you, Yoshino-chan, because you are my granddaughter," he tells her, narrow and faded reddish lines on his face barely noticeable. Those happen sometimes when Senju and Hatake blood mix; she's seen brighter ones on her cousin Jiraya, whose Senju mother turned down the offer of marriage from his Hatake father because she didn't want to move to Sora-ku and he was too restless to stay in the village. "These are clan secrets, so never tell a soul."
Her grandpa wears the uchiwa, even though he's obviously a Hatake. He only ever wears the uchiwa. Yoshino knows she's got no Uchiha blood at all, so grandfather must have remarried after grandmother died in the war. Well, the first war; there's been another one since then –technically two, but there was only about a year between them and her history sensei says those two wars were over the same things and that matters weren't resolved until after the second half-war so they count as one war with a pause in the middle– but not as many people died in the second war. Lots of people got taken hostage and there was a lot of ransoming people back and forth as well as raiding prison facilities, but nowhere near as many deaths as in the lists of the first war.
She gets very good with wire, practicing often. Her grandfather's wife gave permission for Yoshino to learn an Uchiha clan secret even though she isn't Uchiha, so she needs to honour that. She's technically a Senju, but a lot of older Senju think farmers aren't real clansmen and most of her father's friends are called things like Haruno, Sawada, Inada, Tagawa and Imano. They call him 'Kinokawa,' so when he signs her up at school she begs that she be allowed to be Kinokawa Yoshino, not Senju Yoshino, and he sighs and agrees.
Nobody's looking at Kinokawa Yoshino like they look at Senju Kabema, the new Senju Head's son; like they're trying to work out if he'll be loyal like his late uncle Tsunama-sama or a traitor like his grandfather Hashirama. Lots of adults look sideways at Tamayama-sama because he looks so much like his traitor father, but her father says Tamayama-sama was only five when Hashirama died, so it's not fair to judge him for it.
Yoshino can accept that, but 'not fair' isn't stopping anybody else. It doesn't help that Tamayama-sama inherited because Nawaki-kun was only fourteen when his father died, and while Nawaki-kun's big sister Tsunade-san could have inherited –she was twenty-two– the rest of the Senju objected to being led by a medic, even a medic as brilliant as Tsunade-san. Which is very stupid indeed and one more reason for Yoshino to not have 'Senju' on any of her official paperwork.
There are some fun people in her shinobi skills class; a half-dozen Uzumaki since Uzushio was badly damaged in the recently-ended war, so Shirakami-sama opened the Konohagakure School and Academy to them for as long as they need it, three Hatake, her not-Senju cousin Sawada Mebuki, an Inuzuka, a Shiranui and two Uchiha. Fifteen in all; their sensei, Uchiha Kagami, smiles at them, takes all their names and explains what they will be learning in the coming years, how to ask for extra help or advanced lessons and how they have to keep up with their classroom studies in order to be allowed to graduate in six years' time.
He also talks about some of the other apprenticeships and professions a person can pursue that involve chakra; Yoshino resolves to pay extra attention when those lessons come up. She still doesn't know what she wants to be, after all. She knows she could be a shinobi, but she isn't sure she'd be a particularly good one.
She's not worried about falling behind in classroom studies; Grandfather taught her kanji and says her penmanship is very good for her age. He teaches advanced calligraphy one day a week at the mature student classes in the Uchiha Guest Hall, so he would know.
Sakumo is absolutely at his wits' end. His son is almost six, still two years too young for the Academy, but he soaks up his preliminary lessons like a little sponge and is already in the intermediate classes at the schoolhouse, learning kanji alongside the ten-year-olds. He's beating his ten-year-old cousins in spars half the time as well, which isn't doing him any favours; on days like this Sakumo wishes it was still considered acceptable to pack up your small child and take them on circuit for a few years. His wife also rejected the suggestion of apprenticing Kakashi to a cousin in Sora-ku, wanting to keep him close so he can meet his new sibling when they're born.
Kakashi's brilliant. He's also horribly bored, which no amount of mushroom-dancing and calligraphy practice is going to fix, but Sakumo has a toddler daughter and a pregnant wife at home and his own responsibilities as both a Konoha shinobi and a Hatake Wolf Summoner besides; he can't spend all his time coming up with new things to teach his son.
Sakumo crashes back into reality and bows, mortified at having been caught daydreaming by the Uchiha Outguard Head. "My apologies, Uchiha-sama!"
"It must be something serious to distract you from this investigation." Sakumo cringes as on his right Sakin-san glares in annoyance at having his mission disrespected.
Shirakami-sama is right, this is a very serious investigation: the Ichibi is missing. Sakin-san's mother is from Konoha's bunraku clan, the Ichikawa, so he was sent to request aid from them when the wind-riders brought the news to the metal-singers from the deep desert, and the Ichikawa directed him to take the matter to the Uchiha. Satetsu-sama of the metal-singers may have sent his nephew to Konoha, but he has already ventured out into the trackless wastes to see if he can find a trail.
None of Wind's shinobi like the mad bijū that haunts their home, but they recognise that the Ichibi is most of what stands between their daimyo and their own subjugation. That Shirakami-sama and Takahara-sama are choosing to support the metal-singers in this says much; then again, Shirakami-sama calls the Sanbi, the Gobi and the Nanabi 'friend,' presented to them as a child by his infamously fearless mother, so perhaps it is not that surprising.
"My most sincere apologies," he repeats, bowing more deeply.
"Come, Sakumo, tell me what troubles you," the Uchiha Outguard head says gently. "It will not do for you to be distracted on this mission and whatever it is, I am sure a solution can be found."
Sakumo winces. "My son is… far too intelligent to be left to his own devices, Uchiha-sama," he confesses quietly. "But my wife is pregnant, my daughter is a toddler and Kakashi-kun has already antagonised all of his cousins." He would leave the boy with Dai, except that if he does that there's a good chance Kakashi would murder his best friend's son somehow before he got back.
"Your son is… five," Shirakami-sama says, frowning pensively.
"Yes, Uchiha-sama. He's already in the intermediate classes at school and is learning taijutsu almost faster than I can teach him. Basic Elemental manipulation as well." At this point Sakumo will gladly take any help he can get.
The Outguard Head smiles at him. "Well it just so happens that I have a dangerously brilliant five-year-old niece and a hellion seven-year-old daughter who are in cahoots with my twin hellion seven-year-old nephews, so adding one more tiny whirlwind to the mix will not rock the boat overmuch. Bring your son up to the Clan Hall before you leave tomorrow and I'll introduce you both; he can visit every day, give your wife a rest."
Shirakami-sama sounds like he is cheerfully courting disaster, but Sakumo will try anything at this point. "Hai, Uchiha-sama."
"Excellent! Then let us go back over the details your squad will need before heading into Wind."
Sakumo's current squad comprises Ishikawa Sumi –whose son Sasori is twelve and likely to surpass even her impressive puppetry skills– Senju Mito's granddaughter Yamanaka Setsumi, Uchiha Oakan whose son Obito is Kakashi's age, and Uchiha Nakano-inkfingers; they're strongly geared towards investigation and information-gathering with a side of crowd control and heavy-duty barrier fūinjutsu. Shirakami-sama's choice makes perfect sense for bijū-hunting; Sakumo just hopes Kakashi does not terminally antagonise the man's daughter while he is away.
It is a horrendous mission. They do catch up with Satetsu in time to save him from the fūinjutsu specialist he was losing against –just; Nakano drags the man off and spends half an hour swearing vituperatively in the pop-up medical tent as the battle rages on around him– and also just in time to discover that the madman has somehow sealed the bijū inside himself. Possibly, going by his ranting, at the Wind Daimyo's behest, which is an exploding tag Sakumo would rather like to avoid having to throw himself upon. As it is Setsumi engages the man in a terrifying long-distance fūinjutsu battle as Sumi and Oakan act as bait and Sakumo fights shoulder-to-shoulder with Sakin, wolves, chakra sabre and whirling gold dust all forcing their opponent to divide his focus until Setsumi can unravel the seals keeping the bijū contained.
Then they grab Nakano and Satetsu and run like hell, because the Ichibi is furious. Run in entirely the wrong direction, in fact: they end up in the western scrublands, because that was the direction Sakin picked and he was leading the escape. They finally stop in a metal-singer camp where Nakano finishes gluing Satetsu back together with chakra, fūinjutsu and spite, Sakumo finds out what Sakin's actual name is –Rasa, as it happens– and Setsumi gets into a very involved discussion with a couple of weavers while Sumi gossips in buraku dialect and Oakan lies down in the shade under an awning and tries not to faint from heatstroke and chakra exhaustion.
They don't chance the desert on their way home; instead they continue west into Sand Country, then north and east through the myriad vassal-states between Wind and Earth. It takes a full two weeks to make the journey covertly –all the more important with what news is coming out of Wind right now– and by the time they pass under Konohagakure's torii Sakumo has been away for well over a month. Goodness knows what Kakashi will have got up to in that time.
Except it seems that he's made a friend. Several friends, Sakumo amends, gut sinking in trepidation as the elderly Uchiha with a waist-length shock of pure white hair and a topknot, wearing a well-fitted kimono in faintly iridescent pale green silk brocade, levers himself carefully up from his zabuton. The no-less-aged Hatake wearing deep grey in the corner with the much tidier topknot continues to doze, two snow leopards bracketing him and propping him up, fine and faded reddish lines painted up either side of his jaw almost to his cheekbones and a third shorter one bisecting his chin.
That is definitely Tobirama-sama. The famous former Senju looks almost too much like Uchiha Minami, Shirakami-sama's younger brother –father of Kakashi's new friend Nishimi-chan– for it to be a coincidence, despite their scents and chakra having nothing in common beyone elemental affinity and the superficial sameness that comes from a shared diet and spending time together.
"Tōsan, this is Madara-sama!" Kakashi chirps quietly, tugging his hand and dragging him further into the room, steps measured to account for the very fine miniature kimono in deep green brocaded silk that he is wearing. "Madara-sama, this is my Otōsan, Hatake Sakumo!"
Sakumo hadn't even realised Madara-sama was still alive. Which was stupid of him in retrospect; if Konohagakure's founder had died there would have been a massive public funeral.
"A pleasure to meet the father of such a thoughtful and perceptive young man," Madara-sama says, meeting Sakumo's eyes with a smile that silently acknowledges both Kakashi's brilliance and his youthful innocence. "Do stay a while; my wife has promised Kakashi-kun a tea ceremony today and we are going over the various steps and their purpose."
Sakumo make an inquiring noise, which prompts Kakashi to eagerly repeat everything he's learned so far. He's never seen his son so animated; usually Kakashi is bored, defensive or sullen when he's not ferociously focused. Settling to one side of the table, Sakumo notices Tobirama-sama open his eyes –sleepy breathing and mellow chakra not faltering in the slightest– and smirk faintly over Kakashi's head before relaxing back into apparent unconsciousness.
Sitting in a room with two attentive legendary shinobi is somewhat nerve-racking, but Kakashi's eagerness and Madara-sama's indulgence lull him into a degree of complacency until the shōji open again and Kita-sama steps into the room, her kimono a dusky wisteria shade and her arms cradling a box of tea utensils, simply styled hair still a rich black barely streaked with silver.
Sakumo is not practiced at tea ceremony, but he does know how it goes; he stands to shift the table out of the way, then removes himself to the wall alongside Tobirama-sama –who is now sitting forwards and paying attention, idly petting both leopards as he does so– as Kita-sama directs Kakashi to sit beside Madara-sama, lifts up a section of the tatami and floor beneath to reveal a fire pit and begins the ritual of tea.
Kita-sama is a true master of tea: her calmly relaxed focus fills the room, so clear that even Kakashi can feel it. Sakumo watches his son slow to match the pace set, observing every effortlessly smooth movement and responding to the various ritual phrases in soft, measured tones. It is just a chakai, but it is still by far the most beautiful one Sakumo has ever seen.
His son is first guest at a tea ceremony held by Uchiha Kita-sama, the Bijū-Friend, with Uchiha Madara, the Hokage, as second guest. This is not at all what he was expecting when Shirakami-sama agreed to host his son while he was away.
And yet his son is happy. That is well worth the discomfort of sitting among legends.
Yoshino hasn't seen her mother in years, not since she moved into a flat in Konohagakure rather than travel into the village from her father's farm every day. She also hasn't seen her grandfather anywhere at all except at their weekly meetings in the Uchiha Guest Hall, where he makes her tea and they sit quietly together, enjoying each-other's presence, and she sometimes tells him a bit about what missions she's been on lately.
So it is a shock to arrive home after a day in the village, Shikaku walking beside her as he always does now, and find her grandfather sitting at her table drinking tea alongside a leopard easily as large as he is, which is lapping up its own tea out of a shallow dish.
He smiles at her –at them both– and for the first time in her life Yoshino sees the quiet feline threat underlying the expression that her father occasionally complained about. "Mago-chan. Please introduce your young man."
Shikaku steps out from behind her and bows, deep and respectful. "Tobirama-sama."
Yoshino experiences a moment of complete surprise. Tobirama-sama? Her gaisofu, this quiet, gentle man who has only recently retired from teaching calligraphy and whom she has never seen so much as raise his voice, let alone a weapon, is the infamous Senju Tobirama?
Her grandfather chuckles. "Ah, Yoshino-chan; so like your mother in overlooking all the things that don't interest you. And so like your father's mother in determinedly forging your own path, regardless of both obstacles and offered assistance."
Yoshino feels herself blush. "You never said!"
He smirks, all leopard, as the faintly ruddy lines on his face widen and brighten to vivid blood red, redder than she's ever seen them in all those years of taijutsu lessons as a child and weekly cups of tea in the shade of the Uchiha Guest Hall, where the Uchiha clansmen and clanswomen refilling the kettle for them call him 'Bira-sensei'. She had thought that was his name! "You did not ask, mago-chan. You were not interested in the past doings of your aged gaisofu, who only teaches calligraphy."
"You are past twenty and never put together the pieces, though they were all laid out before you, Yoshino-chan." His tone gentles. "Now do introduce your young man, so he can explain to me why he is not courting you in the proper fashion."
Yoshino swallows hard, abruptly and acutely aware that she hasn't told her father about Shikaku either. How and where did her grandfather find out? Tobirama-sama was a fabled sensor, mentioned as being unmatched in range and sensitivity to this day, so maybe that is how? "Gaisofu, this is Shikaku, formerly of the Nara clan; he intends to marry me, but his clan does not approve of his choice. Shikaku, this is my gaisofu, Uchiha Tobirama." Her grandfather is Uchiha; has always been Uchiha. How could she not realise who he was when Senju Tobirama's adoption into the Uchiha Clan is something she learned about in her history and politics classes! Yes, the facial markings in the official pictures are much more vivid than what she's used to seeing on her grandfather's face and he is so much younger in them, but that's still no excuse! She knows about chakra markings!
"How unfortunate for them," her grandfather says dryly. "Come and sit, both of you."
Yoshino sits opposite the leopard, murmuring, "Good evening, Tōnari-bā," as she does so.
"Good evening, Yoshino-chan," Tōnari-bā replies comfortably as Shikaku sits carefully opposite her grandfather. "Have you had good hunting?" The leopard's gaze strays to her fiancé.
"Yoshino-chan, perhaps instead you could show Tōnari around your neighbourhood while I discuss matters with Shikaku-kun."
"Gaisofu," Yoshino begins warningly, then remembers herself –and various previous arguments between her mother and her grandfather– and sighs. "If I don't you're just going to put silencing fūinjutsu on the table like you do at home, aren't you."
He smiles faintly at her, eyes bright and wicked. "My mago-chan knows me so well."
Yoshino heaves an irritated sigh. "I am going to end up being the Nara Clan Head's wife no matter what his elders think of me, aren't I?"
"You deserve nothing less," her grandfather says calmly, "and while your young man may prefer to escape his duties, I would much rather you have the support of a clan upon your marriage. So unless you would prefer I approach your father's side of the family–"
"No." Tsunade is Senju head now, finally, belatedly and at her younger brother's insistence, but the clan is still a morass of disagreements and prejudice and adding Shikaku's brilliant mind to the turmoil will not make things better. She knows very little about her father's kin; her fiancé knows far more about the Nara. If her shinobi training has taught her anything, it is that information is power.
"–then the Nara it will be." Her grandfather smiles at Shikaku, expression thin; her fiancé shifts uncomfortably. "Enjoy your walk, mago-chan."
Yoshino leaves, Tōnari-bā at her side. Men!
Kita sits by the futon, listening to her husband's laboured breathing as she writes a letter to Shibuki-kun, who now lives in Water Country with his wife and their teenage sons. It has been a very difficult winter for her husband; difficult for her and Tobirama too, but Madara has struggled the most and even though it is now spring his difficulties continue. Izuna died two years ago –slipped on a patch of ice one cold morning and broke his hip and thigh, then never recovered– and her beloved has not been quite the same since.
She smoothes her kimono over her knees again, fingers playing gently over the mandarin duck pattern woven into the soft slate blue background. This is the first kimono her husband gave her after their wedding and she has worn it regularly ever since. Perhaps not as often as he would have liked in those first few years of their youth, but her care and patience have born fruit: it is still just about wearable almost sixty years on. But only just about; it is wearing thin in several places and she has had to shorten the sleeves so as to replace the collar.
Madara laughed when she put it on this morning, insisting hoarsely that she is no less lovely now than she had been at twenty. She loves him so much.
Tobirama is also sprawled on the futon, back to back with her husband and wearing a kimono in rich ruddy brown with a subtle pine pattern. He's outlived Tōka, most of his cousins and nephews and even Mito, Uzumaki though she was; Kita suspects the lost of her husband wore on Mito, both for its own sake and the manner of her losing him, and burying first her oldest then her youngest son was the last straw. Both Tobirama's own children live yet though, which she knows is most of what keeps him going these days. That and the prospect of great-grandchildren from Yoshino-chan, who is pregnant; terrorising the Nara clan with his regular visits has given him a new lease of life despite his being past eighty now. And yes it is terrorising, with a side of deliberate provocation; taking leopards to meet deer can be nothing less than that.
"Beloved," her husband rasps, "my sight is going."
It won't be long now then. "Is there anything you would ask of me, before I have Takada-kun fetch everyone?" Shirakami's secondborn and oldest son is currently on duty in the corridor connecting their wing with the main hall, likely losing a scroll game to Kakashi-kun, who found out how ill Madara was last month and has been resolutely hovering ever since. He's only thirteen, the poor child; her husband will be his first death. The rest of their extended family is also keeping close to the compound, not wishing to miss the opportunity to say goodbye. Even Toshi-ko is back from the court, and Takahara and his wife –formerly Kurama Kasagumo, now simply Uchiha Kasa– have indefinitely delayed their own yearly journey to represent the Uchiha to the rest of Fire's nobility so as to spend more time with his father.
Madara looks at her, Izuna's eyes faintly clouded as the Shinigami approaches. "Will I find you in Yomi once you pass, beloved? Or will you not come there?"
Her husband sees far better than Izuna ever gave him credit for. Then again, Izuna saw from the mind; Madara sees from the heart.
"I will not be found in Yomi, husband; I came from elsewhere, and there I will return."
"How are we to follow you there?" Tobirama asks as he laboriously levers himself upright, as though that is the most natural thing to want in the world.
Kita swallows hard, carefully setting her brush aside and breathing through the sudden desire to cry. "I will tell you both," she promises, "and then the children shall come and keep us company until you leave us, husband." She forces a smile. "I am sure you will find that place far more amusing an afterlife than Yomi, beloved." Her children know where she'll be going; she raised them in her faith as best she could. Madara though has never asked before and neither has Tobirama; she had come to believe they never would.
"How could I not, when I know my wife will be joining me there?"
Kita does cry then. She cries as she tells him about the god she has quietly followed all of both her lives, who asked her permission before reincarnating her here and has subtly supported her in all her endeavours. She cries as Madara and Tobirama both commit themselves, and as she calls for Takada to fetch everyone and say goodbye.
She cries harder as Madara breathes his last surrounded by children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nephews and nieces, in-laws and friends of all ages, and knows to her bones that she and Tobirama will not outlive him for very long.
She does not mind it overmuch. She will try to hang on until after Yoshino has given birth to her twins though; Tobirama should meet his own great-grandchildren.