Despite the decades that've passed, it's clear to Hashirama that the nature of their world has changed little and the shadow cast by his mistakes is a long one indeed. Though the people may not be known to him, new faces and unfamiliar banners, the fight certainly is, and it seems even death has not been enough to free him from a life spent locked in battle with the man who shares his soul.
Soon enough, he reaches the limits of what he can do for the generation that now bears the weight of this world. Hashirama closes his eyes and prays to any gods that might listen that this time will be the last.
He opens them to old chaos.
Izuna is run through, and to watch Madara's face go soft as he remembers it, so close to the boy Hashirama met by the river all those years ago, hurts no less this time than it did the first. Izuna lay dying in his brother's arms, and when he uses what precious little breath he has left to warn Madara of pretty words, Hashirama's chest goes cold as if it were his own pierced by Tobirama's blade.
"Izuna!" Hashirama calls. Things will be different this time. "Listen to me, please," he urges.
"Why would I—" Izuna's voice is broken by a horrible, wet cough. He won't have long, now. Last time, he'd gone cold before the sun broke on the morrow. Certainty allows adrenaline to crash through Hashirama's chest, collapsing inward and washing out under his skin. He cannot fail. He will not fail, not again.
"Allow me to heal you and offer terms, please. You need not accept them, I ask only that you listen." At his side, his brother grips his arm hard. When Hashirama turns to him, Tobirama looks shell-shocked, but determined.
"This is war." Tobirama's voice is hard and Hashirama cannot help but see all the ghosts of the past—their present—on his face. Cannot help but see the man his brother will become. "You would lose us the advantage." As he speaks, his sword hand trembles. Madara's brother is not the only who needs saving.
"Trust me, brother," Hashirama implores. Time has not worn away the understanding between them, it seems, and Tobirama holds his eyes only a beat longer before nodding. Izuna has little time to spare, fading fast before his eyes as Hashirama turns back to him. "Your brother cannot live without you." Hashirama cannot bring himself to look at Madara's face when he speaks, but he hears no protest. "Please, Izuna, do not make him."
Izuna heals while smoke fills the air as the Uchiha burn their dead. Hashirama wonders for how long the smell lingers in their linens and leathers, if the scent of his father's pyre is woven into every fibre of Madara's home, if he wears his grief like armour each time they fight. Izuna fell at midday, now the sky is dark and Hashirama's hands are numb from the work he's done at his side. Across from him, Madara is curled in on himself, clutching anxiously at his brother's hand as he watches the colour slowly return to his cheeks. Hashirama pulls back his hands and straightens his aching back.
"He will live."
Madara's face is raw with relief, the sound that leaves him so rough Hashirama feels its abrasion against his own skin.
"He was so close," Madara rasps. "I failed—"
"You haven't failed, Madara. Your brother lives." Hashirama needs Madara to understand, to share, the intensity with which his words are felt. Side-stepping Izuna where he lies, Hashirama sinks to his knees in front of Madara and reaches for him with hands still darkened by his brother's blood, feeling the ratchet of Madara's pulse and the tension of his jaw under his palms. Bloodshot eyes stare back at him from under the shroud of Madara's hair.
"Izuna lives by your hand. I couldn't protect him."
"You cannot think like that," Hashirama urges, gripping Madara's nape as a calloused hand clutches at his wrist, desperate. "It's war, it could have been any of us."
"But it was not." Voice gone hoarse with grief, Hashirama has never felt the gulf between them as he does now and wonders at how his friend succumbs to mourning even with his brother's palm pressed warm against his own. "Every one of them, Hashirama. I failed every one of them—"
"If I were left alone—"
"You are never alone, Madara," Hashirama swears, vehement, "not while I am here." He knows his hands grip too hard, feels the bruises that blossom under his fingers, but he cannot allow Madara to slip from his grasp.
"Hashirama." Madara smiles joylessly. "Would that it were true."
Instinct tells him to protest, but to do so would make him a fraud. To swear to Madara that he would never abandon him, never leave him to fall into misery beyond recognition, would be a lie when he has already done so once.
Madara needed a brother, a village, people to care for. Hashirama had known that when he'd shared with him his desire to see Madara named Hokage. He'd known what it was that would save him, remind him of who he was and allow for others to see, at last, what Hashirama has seen in him from the day they first met. He'd known, and still, he'd allowed himself to lose sight of their bond. It may be Madara who left the village, but Hashirama was the one who left him behind.
Today, Izuna will live, but tomorrow is never guaranteed in this life nor the next, and Madara's needs remain what they were when Hashirama first realized them.
He will not abandon Madara to his grief again.
"This is a mistake, brother," Tobirama hisses. "I know your love for the Uchiha, but our people do not share it—"
"Our people do not know Madara as I do. Nor do you, Tobirama." Hashirama kneads his temples from his place slumped over the sturdy wooden desk he and Madara often share. Currently, it's Tobirama on the other side of it, leant near as he trods a well-worn argument between them. Safety, legacy, honour; these are the things, Hashirama knows, that keep Tobirama up at night. For that, he loves his brother, though he hates how his fear of the Uchiha has blinded him to his own prejudice against them.
He has seen what comes of Tobirama's vision, how it becomes distorted when left unchecked, and on this he cannot give. It's uncommon for him to refuse to hear his brother so outright, and the friction it creates between them leaves him sore.
In the end, the letter sent to the Daimyō is long, but contains only three notes of true import.
The Uchiha and the Senju have put a decades-long conflict to rest.
Konohagakure has been born.
Uchiha Madara is their leader.
For all he protests, the letter bears Tobirama's seal, all the same.
Old wounds heal slow, but in time, they do heal. Izuna will never again move with the speed or strength he used to, but nor will he need to, if Hashirama's new foresight serves them all well.
Peace comes easily only in name. At first, their people do not mingle, and even civilians are slow to settle into the village, but with each season that passes, more children are born without the burdens of their parents, more drinks shared between those who have become shinobi of the Leaf before Senju or Uchiha. Hashirama can see how some part of Madara idles and frets without a fight, but the same could be said for any of them. It might be too much to ask that he ever settle into his skin entirely, but their people warm to him with each test of his ability, each proof that he isn't the war monger they thought him to be, and as the shadows slip from Madara's fading eyes, Hashirama finds a peace within himself he's not known since childhood.
Madara no longer sees with much clarity, and Hashirama often spends his nights sitting across from him in the office of the Hokage, reading out the letters they've received to save him the strain. Though he's sorry for his friend, knowing how he grieves his sight almost as he would a brother, Hashirama cannot help but enjoy this time between them, when the sun has set and the tower has gone quiet, only the soft breeze and the distant sounds of the market street filtering in from the window.
It's not unusual for Madara to protest and insist the help isn't needed, but Hashirama knows the signs of headache on his friend well enough he'd hardly listen. Even if Madara spoke honestly, this time is too precious to him to lose.
This evening is particularly lovely. The air outside is unseasonably warm and tonight, the village celebrates the first eve of spring. There will be sweet meats and fireworks well into the night, and sooner or later, Hashirama will drag Madara outside to greet his people, as though the love he bears them isn't clear for everyone to see.
For now, though, Hashirama savours the sake shared between them and the soft, idle smile Madara wears, reclined in his chair as he listens to Hashirama's voice, eyes halfway shut. It's rare, even now, to see him so relaxed, and Hashirama aches with the desire to feel for himself.
Perhaps it's because of the easy atmosphere that Hashirama is taken with such shock when he opens the letter in his hands, but either way, it's his shock that damns him. Even without looking, Madara knows him too well not to feel the change. He cannot say why he's not expected this, he should have, and yet—
"What is it?"
"Nothing," Hashirama answers too quickly and Madara grins, sitting up and leaning forward, movements lax with drink.
"You have no poker face, Hashirama, as you've proven so many times." Madara's voice holds a teasing edge, and Hashirama is suddenly, unbearably jealous of the woman who was once his wife, on whose behalf it was sent. "What's in the letter?"
Hashirama says nothing, Madara reaches for the letter. Without thinking, Hashirama flinches back, yanking it out of reach. Madara stares as he licks his lips. There's no escaping it now, why force his friend to strain himself reading it.
"It's an offer of marriage."
When he speaks, the tenor of Madara's voice has shifted, gone heavier in a way that compels Hashirama to apologize, though he knows not what for. "The thought of taking a wife frightens you so?"
"It's not for me," Hashirama swallows. "It's for Tobirama. From the Uzumaki."
"I would never." Hashirama tries for levity, but Madara has seen through him, no matter the state of his vision.
"You do, often, and poorly only when you want to be caught." The moment seems to stretch between them, and Hashirama wonders if Madara feels it as well, or if it's just his own regret. "Who is the letter for, Hashirama?"
"Uchiha Madara." Grief he has little right to tears against his throat when he speaks. "On behalf of Uzumaki Mito."
It is not all the Uzumaki have written—they ask help in establishing their own hidden village, and in return, offer their daughter, their pride, Uzumaki Mito, as a wife to the leader of the Leaf—but it is all Hashirama can think of.
Hashirama loves Mito, he loved her in his last life and knows he could love her again in this one—thinks Madara could as well, given the chance—but he knows who his soul belongs to, and who he will spend his life with, if allowed to decide.
"And you think Tobirama would make a better match for her?"
Hashirama had spoken impulsively, but not thoughtlessly. He knows what became of his brother, married to his work, to his grief, to his duty. Little time taken for pleasure, no children to bear his name, nor any spouse to call him home. Privately, when he'd first met Mito, he'd thought, more than once, and she and Tobirama might be a better fit. They took to each other naturally in a way Hashirama has rarely seen his brother do, and he'd been tempted, but—to step aside and encourage a match between Mito and his brother, a second son, the right hand of the Hokage, would be taken as an insult.
Little has changed, and yet—yet, Hashirama cannot bring himself to make the same sacrifice when it's himself he would deprive. If Tobirama should be sent to the Uzumaki to help in establishing their village, allowed to spend time with Mito on his own, he hopes, he is certain—
"Yes. Yes, we've treated with the Uzumaki in the past." Not a lie, the Senju and the Uzumaki have been close allies in the time since their shared founding. "Having spent time with Uzumaki Mito," only a lie by technicality, "I'm confident my brother would be the better match for her."
For a long moment, Madara holds his eyes, and Hashirama is irrationally worried that Madara will refuse the suggestion, though he has no true reason to.
"If you say so," he allows at last, and Hashirama feels the tension begin to leave him. "Should we call your brother in and warn him not to greet his future wife with all the charm of a cold fish?"
"Be kind," Hashirama admonishes. "Though—no. No, if he knows that's why I've sent him, he will not be the least bit charming."
"Your brother is not the least bit charming," Madara grouses. "In any case, inform him that he will be sent to the Land of Whirling Tides to help them establish their village, and send the Uzumaki my condolences." At that, Hashirama levels Madara with a flat look that he's certain would not be taken seriously at all, no matter how clearly Madara could see it, and hopes his relief is not so apparent as it feels.
A personal crisis averted lulls Hashirama into false security until he drags Madara from his chair with every intention of pulling him out of this office and into the streets, and finds himself rooted to the spot as his friend's eyes bleed red from his place still leant against the desk, Hashirama's hand in his.
"You lied to me." There is no anger in his voice, only curiosity, and Hashirama's heart beats in his throat as Madara's eyes scorch his skin. Gone are the days when he used them lightly, and Hashirama knows his game is up. "Why?"
"Because I am selfish," Hashirama's voice comes out hoarse, and he feels all the heartache of two lifetimes burning at his lungs as he speaks.
They face each other fully now, and Madara runs a gloved finger over the soft skin of Hashirama's wrist. With little left to hide, Hashirama allows himself to follow an impulse already felt and denied a thousand times over. Running the fingers of his free hand across the soft skin where Madara's glove end, he runs his others up the supple leather until he can hook his fingertips over the hem of the glove and remove it with both hands. The glove drops to the ground between them, and Madara says nothing as Hashirama takes his hand in both of his own, skin to skin.
No words are exchanged between them, and when Madara brings his now bare hand up to cup Hashirama's face, slipping it back to wind scarred fingers into his hair and tug, Hashirama finds he cannot wait a second longer.
"Come here," Madara breathes, pulling Hashirama forward so he might taste the rough edge of his words against his lips. For all that this kiss marks new ground between them, it already feels familiar. It's been years since the village was founded, but it's only now, in the scant space between them, the warmth that seems to cocoon them and allow this moment to stretch, that Hashirama first feels he has truly found a home for the both.
When they part, neither of them go far, remaining locked in each other's embrace, sharing the same breath.
"It is a shame you were not a more selfish man." Madara grins as he speaks. This near, Hashirama can hardly see his expression with any true clarity, but he feels the affection of it all the same. "Had you been so, I might've looked for some reason to make you jealous sooner."
"I've already been too selfish, where you're concerned." Just minutes ago, the words would've hurt to say, but now, they serve only to further the almost unbearable swell of adoration that threatens to steal his breath with how it seems to expand all throughout his chest, leaving room for little else.
"Mm, then maybe it's I who should be more so." Madara grins, pulling impossibly closer.
"You should," Hashirama breathes. "Absolutely."
Hashirama still wakes to nightmares of Madara lying on the ground, the fight gone from him at last, a victim of his own folly and the ravages of grief and time both, made worse by Hashirama's own neglect. Some nights, he wonders if that world has truly been rewritten, or if it still exists somewhere, and his heart aches for the man he couldn't save.
On nights like those, only Madara—whatever iteration of him exists beside Hashirama here and now—can relieve him of his grief, and his presence alone is enough. To see the affection borne clear on his face, feel the love they've both allowed themselves, at last, to indulge, is the thing that reminds Hashirama of his truest purpose and assures him that whatever deity saw fit to offer him a second chance, he will die for what he hopes will be the last time knowing he did not let his time go to waste.