Mito's mother has been gone nearly a month.
When she returns home, she returns with many stories to tell of the Village Hidden in the Leaves. Hope colours more of her words than Mito might have expected for a land so recently war-torn, and when she dismisses everyone from their company for evening tea and hands Mito a scroll sealed with the stamp of the Leaf, she understands that it was for her own sake.
It's never been any secret that Mito will marry for love. Love of her clan, her homeland, her mother and father. Love for everyone who sacrificed to bring their village as far as it has come. Her mother describes thick forests, dry winds and heavy heats all while Mito thinks of whirling tides and rocky shores. She thinks of the strong winds carried inland by the sea and the way you can still taste the salt on the breeze if you close your eyes. Mito has helped to bring their village into being by the sweat of her own brow, she knows the soil into which their seeds are sewn, has felt with her hands the wet clay used to build her home and every other. When she walks their streets and feels the way the village breathes life into all those who inhabit it, rushing to and from, driven by life and not death, she remembers when times were not so simple.
Mito thinks of their people, tired and cautious, but yearning for peace, for life, in a way that's promising, and when her mother speaks of the people who dwell deep in the Land of Fire, they sound no different.
It's people who make a home, and as much as Mito might adore the sea breeze and the memories tucked into every corner of this village, she knows she can do without them so long as the people of the Leaf want as she wants, more than anything, to build a home.
Mother speaks of a man with kind eyes and sharp senses and if Mito allows her mind to turn back, she remembers having met Senju Hashirama only once, back when their village was just fledgling and he came to offer his experience in brokering a difficult peace. Privately, she'd wondered how useful his advice could truly be. Mito had not met his like before, nor has she since. There was a warmth about him, an easy geniality even when holding firm, that few are gifted with. Some men, Mito knows, are built for war, but Hashirama, it seemed, was always destined to make peace.
Truthfully, her mother's word and a years-old memory provide little insight into her future, but she trusts her mother's intuition, and she trusts her own instincts. In a fortnight's time, they will journey to the Village Hidden in the Leaves and Mito's future will arrive to greet her, she need only take the first step.
They make the journey on foot. The palanquin is offered, but Mito insists and her mother allows it. Her husband's first impression of her will not be one of a pretty thing meant to be pampered and made to bear children, it will be of a woman with her own pride and her own strength to carry her wherever she must go. She has no reservations in her desire for a family, but it will not be one borne entirely on the terms of Senju Hashirama.
When asked, she tells her mother as much, but beyond the reasons she does give are those she does not; comfort taken in sleeping under the stars and however many moments she can steal savouring the familiar feel of home before the land changes beneath her feet. She's never been prone to nerves, but for the first time, Mito leaves her home knowing she will only ever return as a guest, and sometimes, at night, the thought makes it difficult to breathe. To look up at the sky and know that even should the world fall apart around her, the stars will always remain those that've been with all her days her is a great source of comfort.
The Land of Fire lives up to its name, for the air seems to scorch her lungs as she breathes it. Still, it is beautiful, in its own way. Sweeping red-rock canyons and thick forests become common and colour the land they traverse once they've passed the border, and though Mito misses the sea already, she finds herself eager to explore.
With every step deeper into Fire Country, the shape of the villages they pass changes with the land. Houses and inns bearing thatched roofs and hung walls turn to those with curved walls of thick stone and flat roofs used to dry linens and keep gardens. Back home, the strong island winds make such a thing impossible, but it holds a certain charm and she wonders if the habit has spread as far as Konoha.
If she's honest with herself, Mito misses home by the time the gates of Konoha come into view. To arrive on foot under the blazing sun is not quite so inspiring as to make port in Uzushio, with ocean for miles in either direction and towering stone pillars that seem to touch the sky, but it feels no less welcoming for the lack of grandiosity.
Hashirama is not quite as she remembers him.
As any who've seen it in the mirror can attest to, there is a look one carries when haunted by the unforgiving spectre of war, no matter how long since it's passed. Once it's settled into the hollow loss has left behind, it never truly leaves, but Mito has felt it soften and become less constant, seen it wane in her own face as the light has returned to her eyes, bringing with it a warmth she thought might be lost to her forever. She can see how time has gentled the most vicious of Hashirama's own ghosts in the same way.
While her first impression of him had been brief, she remembers the heavy shadows under his eyes well enough, they'd mirrored the ones that haunted her own father's face. Now, though, he looks somehow younger, despite the years gone by. An exuberant man with a warm smile and a gentle demeanour. War has taught Mito not to trust easily, but he has a disarming nature and when he greets her like an old friend rather than a prize won, she has to remind herself to reserve her judgements.
As lovely as Hashirama's felicitous welcome is, it's the village itself that speaks to her. After being shown to the inn where they'll stay, one fitted with modest rooms that catch the sunlight beautifully, Hashirama tours her around the village and Mito finds the familiar ache of hope, of possibility, of promise running through her. Although this village has had longer to settle than their own, it seems the wounds between its people run deeper in turn. Trust between shinobi and civilians, it would appear, has not come easily, and trust between Senju and Uchiha even less so. Still, the desire for it is clear in the boundless energy of the market street and children who play together, heedless of the crests borne on their backs, in the clearing next to the academy in which Hashirama seems to take his greatest pride.
However difficult peace might be, few settle happily into a life spent looking over one's shoulder and the people of Konoha are no exception.
"How long since the treaties were signed?" she asks as they make their way back towards the office of the Hokage, pace unhurried. Hashirama walks with his hands clasped behind his back, face tilted up to take in the sun with no care to see where he walks. He looks entirely at ease, Mito muses. A rare state for a shinobi, even one so renowned. Of course, everyone they've come across has greeted him with respect, if not warmth. It seems naive to think he might truly have so little to fear whilst standing on the ground he once warred over, but stranger things have happened, she supposes.
"Close to a decade, now." Pride and heartache both colour his voice when he answers her. "It may seem we have little to show for it—"
"Not at all." Her mother would chide her for interrupting, but Hashirama is entirely incorrect. "Decades spent at war can't be healed in one," she offers. "Too many old grudges still linger long after everyone has laid their swords to rest." Though his step doesn't pause, he turns to look at her and Mito holds his eyes and tries to place the strange expression on his face. It fades too quickly to be pinned down and a forlorn sort of acceptance settles in its place.
"Mm," Hashirama sighs in agreement. "Frustrating that the most critical wound is the one I cannot seem to heal, no matter how I try." His words are startling in their frankness. Hashirama seems to be a man prone to boundless optimism, and she'd not expected him to show how the weight on his shoulders must tire him quite so easily.
"All scars fade in time, Hashirama." For a moment, Mito surprises herself with such an informal use of his name and finds herself thanking the sun for its excusing her already-flushed cheeks. "Perhaps not in our time, but sooner or later."
"I'd prefer sooner," Hashirama admits. "I've never been particularly patient."
"You give yourself too little credit," Mito offers. "One man cannot do the work of healing in place of all his people, it's a fool's errand to try." At that, Hashirama smiles, wide and sincere and less unexpected the more she knows him.
"Ah, well. You would be neither the first nor the last to call me foolish."
At least he knows, Mito thinks as she struggles not to smile.
On the evening of her seventh night in Konoha, Mito meets the man with whom Hashirama has built the village, and she begins to understand why his words felt so raw as they had. Grief's spectre hangs over them all, but Uchiha Madara wears it like a second skin. It is clear from the way he speaks, the way he holds himself, that his wounds still bleed as if fresh. At first glance, he is Hashirama's opposite, but every word he speaks carries a weight that suggests he is more his like than she might have guessed. The difference between them is one of method; where Hashirama has taken up the burden of healing for his people, Madara, it seems, has chosen to allow his lesions to fester so his people needn't suffer his same sickness.
Still, there is nothing half so cruel or monstrous to him as she's heard rumours of, and while his eyes may be tired in a way that speaks volumes, his manner is kind when he greets her. When he smiles, he has the air of a man who must've been charming once, but it seems life has worn the lustre from his coat and given way to the war-torn skin beneath it.
Men like Uchiha Madara do not heal like the rest of them.
Mito feels the gravity of the room shift when Hashirama settles beside them and for the first time of what she expects will be many, she worries that when Madara falls, Hashirama will fall with him.
It seems the sun has already begun to rise later here, and Mito wakes just as the dawn is breaking to mark a full cycle of the moon spent in Konoha. Outside, the air is fresh and she feels she can breathe easily for the first time since she stepped foot in the Land of Fire.
It's been some time since she's had the freedom to follow her impulses, and she knows that once she has knelt at the shrine and taken her vows, it will be some time again, so Mito allows the whim of the morning to carry her as she dresses in her sparring clothes and sets out towards the Hokage's office, following a hunch. It's Hashirama she expects to find when she scales the building and slips in through the window, but it's Senju Tobirama who greets her from behind the desk as though he'd expected her arrival before she'd so much as left her futon. He's not been present during her time in the village, away on a mission, but she recognizes him easily enough.
If not for the candles burnt down to their wicks, she'd never guess he's been here all night.
"I warned anijya you'd be here early," Tobirama remarks, he doesn't ask her name, though he's done her the courtesy of placing his brush aside, and if Mito knew him better, she might be willing to bet he's amused. Having climbed the wall to visit the leader of the village unattended, she can forgive the informalities.
"I wasn't aware my presence warranted a warning," she replies, "I'd have appreciated one myself, as it seems you knew better than I did where I'd be."
"A lucky guess," he assures her. Mito doubts that very much. She's heard tell of his prowess as a sensor. That's not all she's heard.
"You're the Senju who fights with our fūinjutsu."
"I fight with seals of my own invention." As he speaks, she sees the slightest shift in his posture. The way his shoulders pull back like he means to assert himself. Arrogant, Mito thinks.
"Modifications," she corrects. "I could help you to perfect them, if you need a more practiced eye."
The sun has risen high in the sky by the time Hashirama finds them having torn apart one of the more remote training grounds on the outskirts of the village. Tobirama's mood has been thoroughly fouled, but he still has enough decorum to bow before he leaves, no matter how clear his consternation as he does so.
"It seems you've given Tobirama a good run for his money," Hashirama looks far too gleeful for a man so clearly hung over, and Mito struggles not to look quite so winded as she feels. "Could you do the same with me, do you think?" There's a challenge in his eyes that's difficult to refuse.
"I've been told you have little money left to lose," she teases. Hashirama's face falls into a pout.
"Who told you?" he demands. "Was it Tobirama or Madara? I'm sure my brother is already complaining of my bad habits—"
"The whole village knows of your bad habits," Mito laughs. "I can scarcely take a meal without hearing tales of one of your people having left you destitute over a game of dice." Hashirama groans with all the insincere agony of a man who has little trouble laughing at his own bad luck.
"I apologize," he sighs, and she sees the deviance in his expression only a moment before his words give way to it entirely, "to want a man with such terrible luck must make yours even worse."
"I don't believe I ever said as much." Mito has to fight to keep herself from rolling her eyes. Hashirama, she has come to discover, is an abominable flirt, and there's a certain mortification to how well it works to charm her.
"No?" His smile hasn't dimmed one bit. "Perhaps I imagined it. Would you like to clarify now?"
"I'll consider it if you win," she allows.
"A wager of words!" he exclaims, already shrugging off his haori and robe far too readily for a man who should be pouring over paperwork and not abandoning his village mid-afternoon to fight under the guise of flirtation—or perhaps it's the other way around, she's beginning to lose track.
"Only because you have so little else left to bet."
Sparring with Hashirama almost makes Mito sorry to have never seen him fight for real, though she'd certainly hate to be his opposition. He pays her the respect of holding little back, and watching what he can do makes Mito want to push further than she knows she should, perhaps even further than she can. She looks forward to a future where they know each other's steps well enough to push without fear of calamity.
It's a thrilling thought, and for the first time since she arrived, Mito finds herself looking forward to calling the man who collapses onto the ground at her side her husband. Konoha will be a fine place to grow, and while Mito still aches for her home, she now knows with certainty that the image in her mind when she thinks of the word will change, in time.
When he tilts his head to the side to face her, his eyes go wide and Mito sighs heavily, still catching her breath. She knows the heat must have her red-faced enough to match her hair.
"I'm so sorry," he apologizes profusely as he gets to his feet and offers her his hand. Mito takes it and allows Hashirama to pull her up with ease, only slightly dizzy as the blood filling her face falls. "I forget you've only just begun to acclimate, perhaps you'd like to see the stream?" he offers. Mito laughs and wonders how long he'll play at having forgotten their bet.
Something in the air around him changes when they reach the stream, and Mito gets the impression he's waiting for something—someone. She's learned enough now to know that she only need look toward the Uchiha compound to find the source of the shadow that falls over him in moments like these.
Mito has always taken comfort in the changing of the seasons, but in her homeland, the end of summer is marked by heavy rains and whirling tides. In Konoha, it seems the leaves turn bright and the air frigid, and unfamiliar though it may be, she's grateful for the bracing chill today. Dawn has scarcely begun to break over the valley when she's woken and taken to bathe. Too soon, she's pulled from the warmth of the water and brought to have her hair perfumed and pinned far more elaborately than she's ever worn it before.
After, she is wrapped in layer after layer of ornate silks, bound around her figure with grace and care enough to leave her the portrait of Uzushio pride. Mito has never been partial to pretty things, but she wears her wedding kimono with dignity and finds strength in her mother's presence as they are left alone for the last time in what Mito hopes will not be too long.
As her mother stands before her to paint her lips, she cries. Her mother has always cried easily, and when she was younger, she'd taken it for weakness, but she's grown to understand better. To allow herself to cry in a world that can be so unforgiving as theirs is a show of hope. Of determination. A refusal to be robbed of the most human parts of oneself, no matter how it might make living easier if they were to slip away.
With pride and mourning both heavy in her heart and reflected in her mother's eyes, Mito struggles to find the right words to fit the moment, and when she opens her mouth to speak, her mother pulls her near and presses a kiss into her hair.
"You'll do us all proud, my love." She cups Mito's nape as she speaks, running her thumb over the soft skin there. Mito doesn't have words enough to thank her, but she'll trust that she knows, as she always does.
Mito has never imagined herself to be a blushing bride, but nor did she ever imagine a man who would drink quite so raucously as Hashirama—her husband—does now, and trying to match him for pace leaves her with ruddy cheeks gone sore from smiling. Customs in Konoha are not what they are back home, and when they take their leave, they're bid farewell by jubilant cheers and taunts. Mito is so distracted by the injustice of having Hashirama nearly carry her from the room that she almost forgets why.
Upon stepping foot in her new home for the first time, Mito is overcome by grief.
She doesn't realize the tears in her eyes have overflowed until Hashirama steps near, taking her face in his hands—so soft, for a shinobi, she idly wonders how easily they must heal—and wiping them from her cheeks.
"What troubles you, my love?" His words fill her heart with a warmth that speaks to the feeling of family, and Mito draws closer, circling her hands around his wrists to feel the steady beat of his pulse.
"I'd been ready to leave my home but—I find I already feel quite at home here." Hashirama laughs softly and the unbearable fondness in her chest swells full enough to burst.
"Is that not a good thing?" he asks softly. "I would like for you to feel at home here. I would like that more than anything else."
Mito misses her mother, she misses Uzushio and its waves and its winds and the soft sea breeze, but as Hashirama dips his head towards hers and presses a kiss to her cheek, she finds she does not miss home, and knows she will never again have to.
Mito kneels by the rooftop garden she built with Hashirama's help, and holds in her hands a rare winter flower. It's become a dual hobby of theirs, Hashirama cultivates his medicinal herbs, while Mito grows whatever might bring a spot of colour to the village during the colder seasons—they run long, by her standard—and trades seeds with the Yamanaka.
It's late in the season that this flower should bloom at all, and Mito feels as though she's been given a gift. She'd been told when trading for the seeds that its bloom would be auspicious, and Mito finds little reason is needed to call it such beyond the marvel of the thing itself. Delicate veins run through the undersides of each petal in a way that reminds her of the frost she wakes to every morning, and so caught up is she in her admiration of the fine details that she nearly fails to reach the wooden bucket just feet away before emptying her stomach into it.
The New Year approaches, and with it, new life.
As the days darken and the ground beneath her feet begins to freeze, Mito finds she has never before felt warmth as she does now. Tobirama and Madara circle tentatively and pretend—poorly—that their unending gifts aren't a game of one-upmanship over who will be the favourite uncle of a child not yet born. Mito indulges them and enjoys the antics of two grown men, each legendary shinobi in their own right, reduced—as they so often are in each other's presence—to little more than boys who bluster and nitpick relentlessly.
Between them and Hashirama, Mito very nearly has to commit violence to be left alone, and annoying though it can be, it leaves her feeling loved in a way she'd feared she would miss.
When she walks the market with her belly having swollen too big to hide, she finds herself being heaped with well wishes and gifted every kind of food and trinket one could ever ask for. It's too much, but the people of Konoha—her people—are stubborn enough that she wonders if she might have to begin avoiding the market entirely, until she sees a group of children watching with wide, covetous eyes.
When next she visits, they already wait in the same place with hopeful expressions, and she finds she can hardly disappoint them.
On the eve of the New Year itself, it's the coldest night yet, and the village comes alive.
Above them, the night sky is painted with colours of all kinds as the fireworks sound and the sweet and savoury aromas of the food vendors fill the air. Children run through the streets, shrieking with delight as they wave colourful streams of silk in the air behind them, and inside a nearby tavern, a song of celebration drifts out and catches on the breeze. Hashirama radiates warmth from his place stood behind her, and inside of her, Mito carries their future.
After a lifetime spent warring, there is no better feeling than peaceful jubilation, and that is the feeling that seems to run through the village tonight. She may not know what the future holds, but for at least one night, everyone has put their old wounds to rest and allowed themselves to feel whole, and she cannot help but be hopeful that whatever it is the future looks like, she will be proud to have had a hand in shaping it.