Title: The Great Pantomime

Series: Naruto

Pairing: Madara/Shisui

Summary: A villain knows his heroes.

Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi.

A/N: I was trying to figure out what Shisui could have been doing for Madara in The Burning of Paper Instead of Children. Anyway, this story isn't it, but it was way more fun to write. It should either make you laugh or creep you out - if it does both, I'd be very chuffed.


The Great Pantomime

(Hide a knife behind a smile.)

-o-

A meeting:

Footsteps sound on the rotting pier. The clack-clack-clacking of wooden sandals, punctuated by a heavy, painful clumping, stairstepped. The young man – a boy, really – snaps his head the way he's been taught, but the willowy figure in the fog poses no threat to one such as him.

"My apologies. Did I disturb you?"

"No. No, not at all."

Eyes meet, dark to dark. The mist swells over still water, thins away to reveal, and the boy stares, lips parted. Clean bones and creamy skin in this diluted light; a faded green yukata just-so opened to expose the suggestion of sharp clavicles. It's quite the sight, for thirteen-year-old eyes.

"I did not think anyone else knew of this place. I've come here every day for the last seven years, and this is the first time I've been found out."

"I can go – if you want. Sorry, I didn't know..."

"Why should you be sorry? Stay. I'd like the company, if you wouldn't mind."

The man leans against his cane and turns his head, shakes out the soft rattle in the back of his throat, one that could signal illness or melancholy. Either could have accounted for his blighted gaze, his sunken eyes. Something moves inside the boy, a quivering something, small and swiftly beating – or perhaps just the beginning of it.

"Of course I can stay. May I ask – what is your name?"

-o-

Days before:

"So that was an Uchiha," Kisame remarks. "Modern day edition. Looks a bit green, doesn't he?"

"That only means he's at his peak," Madara says. "We as a people are not built for longevity." He smiles scantly. "With the obvious exceptions."

Kisame palms the handle of his sword. "All the same, I'd love to test his mettle."

"We can't have that. Isn't it a big enough risk for you to enter Kiri during these times?"

"Monsters are only superstitions, Madara-sama. As far as the people of this village are concerned, I don't exist." His gaze turns thoughtful. "Of course, it probably doesn't hurt to be a little cautious. Now that this country is no longer under our control."

"That remains to be seen."

He thinks of the arrival of the delegation from Konoha. The youngest among them, whose shoulder he knocked into outside the Mizukage's palace. He was disguised as a filthy beggar, and the boy paid him no mind then, blindly dismissive of those below his mien. Nearly a century has past, but that trait, regrettably, hasn't been bred out of them.

"You're planning something," Kisame says. "Would you mind telling me before I go?"

"You can call it an experiment in getting the most for the least amount of effort."

"And the test subject?"

"You have to recognize an act of providence when it stares you in the face, Kisame."

-o-

Some men are born heroes, and then there are those who need a little help.

A hero's journey is clearly sectioned. It begins with isolation, because all heroes start out very, very lonely and very, very alone. As young babes they are sent drifting out to sea in a frail wicker coracle, to wash up on foreign shores. The ousting from the community mimics the severing of the umbilical cord: the first step everyone takes to stand on their own two feet.

Shisui is going through this elementary motion. The best from a long line of excellence, he left his father and mother, left his brothers and sisters, his home and fond relations: all for the sake of a pridefully held burden. One that, as it turns out, weighs less than a cork. Kirigakure has always been notoriously insular. It's only recently that envoys from other villages have been allowed to enter the country, but even so diplomacy remains a polite fiction. The village keeps its miserly ways, and gives not a farthing to those who darken its doorstep.

With no purpose, and the way home barred, the hero-in-the-making suffers. The point of the first motion is to ease you into suffering, which, as anyone knows, is what heroes end up doing most of the time. For a novice like Shisui, the shock hits like an infliction. People are people are people. The whole of humanity is a family of sorts. Surrounded by an ocean of his species, why does this loneliness twist him so, choking his heart with the bile of desolation?

Madara can tell him that this desolation is nothing compared to, say, the golden, sun-washed desert, where the sand is fine like white sugar and the hot wind scoops up the sun and pours it down on the terrifyingly flat landscape. The clear blue sky is merciless to new outcasts who trudge to the summit of the tallest sand dune, tear off their armors and throw their arms wide open to scream at its bottomless face, IS THERE NOTHING ELSE YOU WANT TO TAKE?

But that was in another century.

-o-

Let's try this again:

A hero needs, first and foremost, a lonesome path. Then, lonely and destitute, he will seek solace in an object of adoration.

This is where he comes in.

Beauty is important, but not just any kind. The lonely only seek others of their kind, so it must be the kind of beauty born for sorrow, for an elegant grief, the kind that would be painted and written down and remembered and celebrated, terrible but exquisite. That kind of beauty.

Of course, it's also no good if the object appears unattainable. If there's one quality that encompasses all heroes, it's the pathological need to be needed.

That is why he limps.

It easily becomes a routine. Every day, after completing his meaningless duties, Shisui goes to the abandoned pier and waits for his strange new friend, who comes to him leaning on a birch cane for support, moving tenderly and somewhat unsteadily. Never falling of course, but retaining always the possibility of falling, loss of balance in an unspoken promise.

There's no one else on the empty beach, just them, the waves, and the seabirds wheeling overhead. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Shisui casting him uncertain looks as he hobbles and strains, leaving a trail of imprints on the damp sand. His mouth twists after each particularly long step. "It only acts up when the weather is bad."

Shisui sends a worried look at the curdled sky. "Perhaps we should head back, Kazuya-san."

Names are souvenirs that he picks up and casts off when they no longer suit his purpose. This one is a remedy and that one is a weapon and this one scorches like the sun and that one kisses like the moon and this one saved a hundred lives and that one destroyed a thousand more.

Kazuya is an adornment.

The peaceful one. An imprecation, a curse, a malediction.

"You head back. I've kept you long enough."

"You asked for my company. I'll only go when you don't want m—it anymore."

-o-

On guidance:

Shisui smiles one day, lips and eyes. "I'm fourteen today."

"That's wonderful. You should have told me."

After awhile, as the idle days spread soothing balm over the wound of his aimless loneliness, the hero will grow restless, and desire direction. Typically, a mentor will arise to provide it. Unfortunately, there's no one around who feels obligated to give Shisui advice of any sort, and there isn't time to conjure one. So, he's taking shortcuts.

"We'll celebrate," Madara says, and because it's September and everything is grey like ashes left over by the blaze of summer, they go for a drink.

Shisui has, from the first, kept his hands to himself, but he loosens up with the easeful glow of liquor, and boldly allows their elbows to touch, accidentally on purpose.

"Is fourteen a good age to be?"

"Being young is generally good. You're on the brink. In the moment."

"How old are you, Kazuya-san?"

"Too old for you," he says, and hides a smile behind his cup as colors flood Shisui's face. The boy doesn't say much after that, focused with deadly intent on the glossy bottles that tumble in and out of his hand, waging a rigorous negotiation with himself.

Being on the brink also means teetering on the edge of a fall.

When the alcohol releases Shisui, the sun is high in the sky and the bedroll wrapped around him smells like smoke and ink. He finds his host by the well in the front yard, straining with the pulley. "Good morning, Shisui-kun. How does your head feel?"

"Alright," Shisui says, wincing. "Is this where you live?" He casts his red-rimmed eyes around, takes in the cloves of dried garlic hanging from the rafters, the few chipped bowls on the table, the shoji doors badly in need of patching. The flagrant poverty alive in every object.

"I'm sorry I couldn't offer you your own bed," Madara says. "You should wash those clothes when you get back. They probably smell like me all over."

"I don't mind," Shisui says. "I don't mind smelling like you. I… Well…" His gaze snaps onto the bucket of water faithfully rising from the well's depth. "That looks heavy. Let me do that."

The current leaders of the Uchiha would be shocked if they could see their child wonder now, abusing his famed ninjutsu to help an outsider with the mundane business of living. His nervous energy drives him into a frenzy; he sweeps the yard, chops firewood, sorts radishes for pickling in a fraction of the time it would take another person. At the end of the hour, Shisui presents him the meal he has cobbled together, prouder than a soldier returning from a great victory.

But lunch is soon over, and as the sun slips from the apex of the sky, Shisui's excitement fades. He lays his chopsticks across the empty bowl. "Is there anything else I can do for you, Kazuya-san?"

Madara shakes his head. "Thank you for the meal," he says, and sends Shisui away, crestfallen.

-o-

A week passes and Shisui says again, "Is there anything else I can do for you, Kazuya-san?"

"At this rate, I'll have to start fabricating problems just to pacify your persistence."

"You always say that, but there's so much to do around here." He is, in fact, stubbornly attempting to mend a tatami square, despite Madara's assurance that one mended mat won't make much of a difference to the general décor.

"Don't trouble yourself, Shisui-kun," Madara says soothingly. "I've always managed."

"Yes," Shisui says. "But you shouldn't have to." He seems to catch himself, and presses on awkwardly, "Doesn't it get lonely, living by yourself and so far away from everything? You should keep something for a companion. A pet, or…"

"Or what? A wife?"

Shisui's mouth snaps shut. He puts down the tatami mat, props himself on the edge of the walkway and lets his knees swing a little, jittery.

Madara smirks. "Who would marry a cripple?"

"Please don't say that," Shisui pleads, the hurt obvious on his face. Standard procedure when a stray follows you home is to drown the whelp, but his personal protocol requires more finesse.

"Shisui-kun," he begins. "You don't like your current lodging very much, do you?"

"No," Shisui says immediately. "I feel like I'm being watched all the time over there."

Madara concedes that this is likely true. "Well, there is plenty of room here."

Shisui's eyes widen. "You really mean it?" he says, beaming like official housing provided by the Mizukage's office is somehow deeply inferior to a ramshackle hut all but buried at the foot of the misty mountain.

"Of course, I can't guarantee that you'll find these accommodations very comfortable either."

"Why not?"

"The roof leaks."

"Does it?" Shisui says brightly. "I'll fix it!" And just like that, he is gone in a whoosh of wind.

-o-

So Shisui moves in. He brings with him a small kalanchoe planted in a rice bowl – "These leaves make a good cure for coughs." – and his unspoken desire, pressed tightly to the roof of his mouth. His time in Kiri should be nearing its end; his colleagues have begun, one by one, to hand in their final reports, glad to be released from their thankless job. But Shisui continues to delay his departure, making up excuses to stay behind, presumably so he can fix every tatami in the house.

Madara leafs through the pages. Even this far, they have only covered the preliminary stages. More than a beauty to worship, a mentor to venerate, a lonely road to travel, what a hero needs is a cause. So, shortly after the bell rings in the New Year, Madara gives him one.

"Wake up, Shisui-kun. We have to leave."

Shisui throws the blanket aside and sits up, fully alert. "What's wrong?"

"The village is under attack," Madara says. "Put on your clothes. We have to move further up the mountain."

So.

In the Year of the Tiger, the Kaguya clan launches an ambitious assault on Kirigakure. Under the cover of night, a mist as dense as a brick wall, they descend upon the sleeping village with less than 100 men, and slaughter ten times that number, two civilians for each shinobi they cut down.

The two of them stand at the edge of a rocky parapet and watch it all unfold, distant and out-of-focus. The darkness is alive with tiny bright dots that indicate the houses writhing in the forced embrace of the fire. Shisui, who has brought them here with three Shunshin steps – "I'm sorry about this, Kazuya-san, but please hold on." – looks upon the sight with furrowed brows, which is strange because Madara is fairly certain he was alive during the Great War.

Then again, it's unlikely he's ever witnessed violence as senseless as this, not on this scale. The Kaguya make an art of war, turning each house, each street into a territory, and defend it to their last drop of blood. Blades to flesh, blows to bones: slaughter at its purest. Admirable.

But war, he knows, is won with numbers, and as waves upon blind waves of Kiri's fighters sweep over them, the fire of the Kaguya is hacked down by this impersonal flood.

"Why are they doing this?" Shisui asks.

The correct answer would be: because they can. It's the perpetual human condition, not stopping while you're ahead, always trying to just take it and run. You have to understand the past in order to anticipate the future. He is so old that his grudges have rotted away inside him like the flesh of unpicked fruit, but the festering wounds they left ache still.

Instead, he says, "In your village, a bloodline limit is considered a mark of pride, isn't it? Well, in this country, it is a damning brand. But people can only be trod upon for so long. If you shed their family's blood and drive them ever deeper into the mountains, you shouldn't be surprised that they will eventually rise against you."

Shadows of other business are calling to him. Words from Sasori reveal that Orochimaru is prowling these lands. He must deal the finishing blow quickly, and be away – it's improper to allow a place to be haunted by too many ghosts.

"You asked me once why I lived by myself."

"Is it…" Shisui's eyes widen. "Are you…?"

Madara can and will always say that he never lied to Shisui on that night. The boy has always drawn his own conclusions, and he simply doesn't take the trouble to correct him. He shifts his weight uneasily, and Shisui's eyes immediately fly to the cane, his lame stance. A dark wrinkle appears on the seat of his brows.

"Did they do that?"

Sometimes, silence is more effective than the most eloquent of words.

Shisui glares at the chaos below, infuriated. "They shouldn't persecute you. They have no rights."

"They are the ones who make the rules of this land. They have every right."

"That's wrong." Shisui clenches his fists with force enough to bring pain. "I won't stand for it."

-o-

The house miraculously escaped the attack, so unlike many of Kiri's residents, they are free to go back to their chaste, cordial life. The only thing that's changed is the gathering hardness in Shisui's eyes – and it just so happens that it's the only change that matters.

"I want to be stronger," Shisui says one day. "I need – I need to get better."

Madara looks at him in question. "And why do you feel you need to be better?"

"Because – I want to help you."

"Help me do what?"

The atmosphere between them is thick, viscous and slow-moving. Saturated with the stuff of deception, and yet not a single lie has been uttered. The beauty of it strips him to the bone. Fourteen is really not very many years. Even one more would have made all the difference.

"I want to help you take back this country."

Were all confessions in the history of lovers as impressive as that.

"That's gallant of you," Madara says laughingly. "But how do you plan on doing that? You are leaving soon."

Shisui grins at him, jaunty. "That's just the thing. I was meaning to tell you, because of the instability caused by the attack, the Hokage's finally approved my request to extend my post." He neglects to disclose exactly when this particular request was made. "I'm in for the long haul now."

There is something startling, something impervious and distillate in Shisui's bright, unequivocal eyes. Madara can almost hear his thoughts: in his mind, he is already saying goodbye to his home, wandering through the old sights and caressing the old faces, soon to be left by the side of the road. It calls up within him wisps of memory, of other men that he has known, but one by one they have sunken into the earth, and now no one remembers their names but him.

"So," Shisui goes on uncertainly, "that's one thing out of the way. As for the rest…"

"Well." Madara drops his eyes demurely. "There could be a way." He lifts his face in a tender smile. "Would you like to see what I can do for you?"

Shisui is fourteen but his expression seems much younger as Madara advances. He cradles the boy's face in his hands, skirting the border of intimacy, sending Shisui's eyes darting to the floor.

"Don't look away."

The illusion sweeps into place under a mask, and Shisui shudders and blanks out as it crawls over his skin, his skin dissolves over his bones, and then his head slips beneath, complete gone under. It says a lot about the state of his dear old clan that one of its most brilliant offspring can't even recognize the technique that once made his ancestors feared across the continent.

Shisui comes to an hour later with Madara's hand wiping a cool wet cloth over his hot forehead. "That was…" he gasps, breathless. "That was brilliant."

-o-

Training:

Shisui's bare torso glows a cool blue in the dark. He arches tightly under Madara's hand, and his skin is contrarily warm and smooth, the only source of heat in the entire room. His mouth gapes open, raw and sore, bottom lip bleeding from deep teeth marks. A heart beating in an electric flurry, furious with life.

"Again," he says vehemently. "Do it again."

"As you wish," Madara whispers, and carefully puts him under.

-o-

In September, they make their first breakthrough. In a manner of speaking.

"I didn't," Shisui sputters, face paled, his irises still red and whirling. "I didn't mean to. You have to believe me Kazuya-san, I never meant to—"

"I believe you," Madara says. He straightens up, putting distance between them, and pushes down the slightly nauseous urge to expunge the foreign traces still lingering in his consciousness.

So that is what it feels like. A sudden burst of cold in your chest that spirals up and up, and an unpleasantly oily aftertaste, not unlike biting into a greasy morsel. No wonder his body reacts in repulsion; that was an incisory invasion, a fine knife along the skin, even in this incomplete form. For the first time, he wonders how powerful Shisui really is. He doubts Shisui knows it himself.

Across from him, Shisui's expression eases with palpable relief – but he's running his thumb softly over his lips in wonderment, as though trying to recapture the fleeting connection of a moment before. His eyes are too bright, glassy and drugged with untold want.

"I believe that you didn't mean to," Madara continues, and a dark flush spreads across Shisui's cheeks. He drops his hand into his lap, where it tightens into an unhappy fist. "But our subconscious has a way of revealing desires that we aren't aware of ourselves."

Shisui turns his chin, sniffy and resentful. "If you know already then please don't make fun of me." It's tragically amusing.

"If I remember correctly," Madara says lightly, after a short silence. "You'll be fifteen in a few days."

Something changes in Shisui, like a current streaking up his spine – like he's finally, finally found the invitation he has been searching for all this time. The wind's changed. Shisui turns his shoulders so they are face to face, and quietly crawls toward him, hands and knees.

"Am I still too young for you?"

His bold lips ghost over Madara's, breath caught in his throat. "You've never let me do this before," he says. "Will you let me now?"

Madara doesn't say, "Yes," but he does tug Shisui into him. He tastes his throat, his young skin, while Shisui's fingers flutter over his pulse, high on the early autumn light, on the triumph of an unexpected victory. He believes this a conquest, and not the submission that it really is.

-o-

At fifteen, hands and lips and tongues are of course not enough for Shisui. When someone loves you, their body loves yours, it's simple as that, and so on his birthday, with darkness shrouded all around and the sake from dinner still smart on their breath, they act out a foregone conclusion.

"I'm not hurting you, am I?" Shisui says as he leans over him, breaths ragged. He's asked the exact same question three times, in between nervously sliding his hand up Madara's thigh at the dinner table and where they are now, coiled around each other on the floor with their discarded clothing fanned out in disarray around them, the frigid air cold on their bared skin.

Madara quirks the corner of his mouth. "No," he says, and nudges Shisui's hips with his, drawing from his bitten lips a choked gasp.

The weak, oaky light of the oil lamp lights the thin edges of Shisui's face, long curled lashes, the full bow of a mouth. Messy smile, clean jaw. Here is fantastic genetic alchemy, marrying sharp, frugal Uchiha lines with the riot of exotic, ringleted excess that must have entered their blood in later years. The result is this flawless, earthly specimen, and if there is such exquisiteness in the world to be had then it must be had – he must close his hands around its tender neck and squeeze it dry, until nothing is left but a husk, beautifully-shaped emptiness.

Everything about Shisui is smooth and sleek and lissome, streamlined for ease of motion and brimming with hope and compassion, like he's made of it. His body spills secrets his mind would have preferred to keep. Madara pockets them, and greedily arches up against the uncertain hands gripping the slants of his hipbones, stroking his body and watching the flush spread exquisitely across Shisui's pale chest, his high cheekbones. Curled up in the new winter quilt afterward, sore and mortified but obviously ecstatic, Shisui looks about ten years old.

"There," Madara says, sliding down next to him under the blanket and running his hands over warm ribs. "Now you can smell like me all the time." Shisui laughs, delighted, and rolls them together in the deepening night.

-o-

Love is the sweetest of pleasures when first it is new. The bone-chill of the Water Country loves Shisui that winter, swirls down from the clouds to rest in the corners of his eyes and the hollows of his neck. It's hard to be utterly convicted in a nihilistic universe when there's someone to cradle your loneliness until it warms, light up the dark corners in your shell. Contentment gleams on his lips during those winter months, and he walks his path like the blessed men of legends who wander into the mountains to lay with a smiling, lazy-lidded god.

It's not everyone that gets to feel like they've gotten all that they've ever wished for at the age of fifteen. Really, it's almost a kindness on Madara's part, to facilitate this blissful sojourn.

Almost.

But time passes in the rolls of the tides. Soon, it's a new year again, and the next chapter of the story has begun.

-o-

"I'm ready."

Shisui swings the heavy cloak over his nondescript clothes. The mist wraps around him like a cold fist holding a burning rod of steel. Outside, it has snowed, and the ground is an alarming white, ice crystals hanging from the stern edge of the roof, decadent ornaments of the ascetic.

After months at the whetting stone, Shisui's new sword is ready to be unsheathed, and it is a thing of beauty, a poetry of long, silent verses, nothing at all like his body that moves in short, straight bursts of speed. It is the most brilliant invention to have come in decades – rewriting thought planes in many cursive strokes – and Madara is proud to have engineered its creation.

"Godspeed," he says, arranging the clasp of Shisui's cloak, stroking a finger down the slope of his cheek. "You hold both of our lives in your hand."

Shisui's eyes harden. "I would never let anything be traced back to you, even if I'm captured."

"If you were captured, you wouldn't have a choice. Your body will be made to turn against you – to become your prison."

"No," Shisui says. "There must be a way."

"There is," Madara says. "If you're willing to try it." He returns, splaying his hand to show Shisui the answer to his dilemma.

"What is that?"

"It's a pill." He holds the thing up between two fingers. "A capsule. Certain sects of shinobi use it as a simple method to prevent information from being tortured out them, in the event they're incapacitated and can't rely on ninjutsu to do the job."

"The job?"

"Poison, Shisui-kun," Madara says brightly. "The casing is plastic. You cheek it, and when the time comes – when it becomes necessary – crush it between your teeth to release the liquid."

He smiles thinly over Shisui's restraint frown. "It's a very potent solution. I would understand if you don't wish to use it, it's only an option."

"I'll take it," Shisui says, very quietly. "Can you help me put it in place?"

An open mouth signifies complete surrender, accepting whatever the other chooses to pour down your throat. The ultimate proof of devotion. The denial of all other idols. Every night before they go to bed, Madara removes the capsule from Shisui's red, obedient mouth, and every morning, he carefully places it back inside again, in an endlessly repeated cycle of cruelty and tenderness.

A kiss, a kick, a kiss, a kick.

Nothing is more precious than pain, for this, after all, is the age of martyrdom.

-o-

And so it goes. The trees sway in the wind, fill with leaves, then lose them. The moon grows fat and thin as the earth spins between it and the sun. From the safety of the mountains, he tears a nation apart. With his ten fingers, he sweeps celestial light from the sky, and all the world is dark.

But some days, Shisui has doubts.

"Are you sure?" he asks some nights, tossing and turning in their bed. The moon breaks through the branches outside the window and falls in faint, elongated quadrants over his body.

"Sure of what?" Madara replies. Shisui clenches his teeth around something, but then seems to think better of it. He rolls over again, clutching at the sheet, and breathes a soft, content sigh when his lover leans over to lick the night sweat from his neck.

And some days, Shisui is sullen.

"Have you been sleeping well?" Madara inquires. He knows Shisui hasn't.

"No," Shisui clips. His eyes are inky and dull, and his fingers quake under the bowl. "I've been having these really awful dreams."

So he has – only they are not dreams at all, but echoes. His head is pregnant with them, heavy, desperate for relief, but he has no idea, and can only rub at his overstressed eyes in fatigue. It's that long-time curse, Madara knows. No Uchiha is exempt. It's only a matter of time.

"You know, I used to have about two nightmares a year," Shisui says, only half-joking. "Since I met you, I've moved up to two a night." On some subconscious level, perhaps he's finally realizing that Madara is the worst thing that has ever happened to him.

Too little, too late. Being in love, he knows, is like being possessed.

It's around this time that Madara's other life beckons him away from his deep hermitage. It's Konan who comes to greet him when he steps out of the unforgiving rain, ankles damp, wiping his knuckles on his coat. Her pale eyes look suffocated, like a water stain on thick paper, undoable and spreading, begging for an end. Why she thinks this look should be directed at him is anybody's guess. It's no one's fault but hers, choosing someone who went so far away.

When he returns to the giddy drizzle of the Water Country, Shisui is sitting on the front walkway with an expression that suggests he has plumbed to new and undiscovered depths of insomnia. His face is all eyes when he jumps to his feet and stumbles toward Madara. "Where did you go?"

Madara considers his options. He has been gone nearly three days; it's hard to come up with a reasonable explanation, so he doesn't hesitate to give an unreasonable one.

"From time to time, a person needs his solitude, Shisui-kun."

Shisui looks unconvinced. "Is it because of what I said?"

Madara gives him a chilly look that says, "Why should you think that?" but clearly means, "Maybe." Shisui's face falls.

"I'm sorry," he says miserably. "I won't say things like that again. Please come inside, it's getting cold. I've made dinner."

-o-

Shisui shreds a letter from home, quietly but viciously.

"They are such fools." A rip. "Limited and short-sighted." A tear. "There's no hope for a single one of them." He lets the scraps of paper flutter to the floor without a hint of remorse.

It's not happy tidings. His parents are anxious, his siblings miss their handsome brother, and the leaders of his clan wonder if his vast talents might be better employed closer to home. There's something desperate in their carefully phrased pleasantries, but of course Shisui doesn't notice.

Over time, he unlearns gratitude, divests fealty, and believes himself free, one who only appears to belong to his family, rinsed of the muck of their dependence. The orphaning of oneself is a step every hero must take, and with it, Shisui is that much closer to completing his journey.

"Won't you get into trouble for failing to reply?"

Shisui shrugs. "I'll write back, citing some bullshit about the situation here demanding further attention. The mission reports will corroborate it. It's not as if I don't bring honor to their name."

"Your name, Shisui-kun," Madara reminds him. "They are your family. You shouldn't deny their request so easily."

"I don't care about that." Shisui shakes his head firmly. "I'm not a child anymore, and I'm needed here more." A brave moment, and then his treacherous youth gives him away, ekes out of him a beseeching look. Am I right?

Madara, of course, does not reward this shameful honesty with affirmation. He says, "Are you sure that is alright?" and could have laughed because of course it isn't alright. Of course it isn't.

"I want to help you, Kazuya-san. I want to do something that matters." For an instant, Shisui's face glows, like a sky lofty with winds and clouds. "Will you stay with me always?"

"Yes. I will stay with you."

Shisui smiles gratefully. "Then it's alright."

-o-

Some days, Shisui is angry.

Some days, he's tired. Some days he's sick of being stouthearted, of living a double life. On those days, he gives in to the exhaustion that coats his bones, and that exhaustion breeds an anger that bruises to the guts, explodes outward like a lit match in a powder keg.

It's winter again and Shisui is almost full-grown, approximating the man he's been blindly stumbling toward, but now the smile on his lips is only the remnant of something he has already changed his mind about. On a parallel path, his body slouches toward ruination. Strength leaks from his dehydrated cotton bones, and with it: joy. Every shred of muscle holds a nameless ache.

His body pains him, and because he cannot shrug it off and abandon it somewhere, even for a little while, he rages, violent and inconsolable, lets accusations fly like knives. "I can't live like this! I don't want to do this anymore!"-etc.

"Then stop," Madara coolly suggests, with the air of flicking off a watermelon rind. "You may leave anytime you want." Which is cue for Shisui to storm out of the house, letting his swift jumps carry him away, forgetting that he can't leave – that he is, still, sea-locked.

The further he runs, the tighter the hold. His debt is unpaid.

He returns in the falling dark still hungry and savage, and they fuck but don't kiss, consuming each other like a disease. They shred each other to raw, bloodied strips, and Shisui knows he is losing – has lost again – but he keeps at it, loses again and again. Maybe it's punishment. Maybe he thinks he deserves it. It's a stupid thought, but it's his right. If he can pay for his own mistakes, he should have the luxury to make them.

Shisui post-anger is a collapsed structure, a wounded beast licking at a wound that keeps getting larger with each tongue stroke. "I'm sorry," he says, over and over, leaving raspy, fevered echoes in the hollows of Madara's collarbones. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Madara wants to say, again, "Why should you be sorry?" but even though this is the only time this question is honest, the story has moved on and that is no longer the right line. He reaches down instead and drags Shisui out of the roaring current by the scruff of his neck. "Sleep now," he whispers. "I would never let my dear one drown. Come back to me."

And Shisui does, each and every time.

-o-

One day, in the spring of his third year in Kiri, Shisui has a visitor.

Madara observes their seaside meeting from a distance. This young emissary, then, is the clan's last-ditch effort to pry their brightest star from his chosen orbit. Judging by Shisui's reaction, the gambit is not entirely without merits.

Itachi's arrival bares all the lingering secrets of Shisui's heart. This child of steel is Kazuya's predecessor, his juvenile prototype. Precocious, he has already taken the initiative to begin his own journey. The same age that Shisui was when he first became Madara's foundling, the stark hunger in the boy's eyes when he looks at his cousin proves he too must be right in the middle of the second heroic motion – finding someone to love.

But whatever incendiary possibilities once existed between them have sunken beneath the waves. The look Shisui gives Itachi now is still and vacant as the sea, and before Madara's eyes, a sweet diorama unfolds on that endless, windblown beach. Shisui, gallant and generous, is callously if unknowingly rebuffing his childhood friend's clumsy advances, the way he's brushed aside the longing glances the boys and girls of this village have cast his way for the last three years. Quite expertly, he takes the proffered heart between his teeth, holds it fast, and shatters it to pieces.

Then again, nowhere in the hero's rulebook does it say that his love need be requited. It is but another kind of suffering, to gaze upon the beloved whose neck is ringed by another's kisses.

The ghost of ambition again flares in chest. Soon.

But easy, easy now. One at a time.

Shisui comes back from this meeting troubled and quiet, and for the first time in years his eyes are turned westward, scanning the uneventful horizon, his thoughts crowding around the distant land that lays on the other side of the ocean.

"I have to go home for a little while," he announces. His voice is tremulous, like a cup weary of holding heavy water. "I'll be back soon."

Like a crow who smells hot blood, Madara flies across the sea, walking on wind and water even as Shisui's boat bobs fitfully in the roiling waves. His bones thrum and sing. Dear green Konoha. He could raze it to the ground over and over, but they will burn themselves on false tyranny.

Enchanted with the disaster brewing in his homeland, he tarries, and Shisui beats him back to Kiri's shore. He finds him back at the house curled up on his side like a shrimp, swaddled in the heavy folds of the futon. Madara kneels down to touch his shoulder, gently shakes him awake.

"Kazuya-san," Shisui says dreamily, turning to him with unfocused eyes. "It's you. Thank God, I was having the most terrible dream."

Madara lightly brushes matted hair away from his temple. "What was it about?"

"I don't remember," Shisui says, pulling himself up. "But it was dreadful."

"You look upset. What happened at home?"

"Nothing," Shisui says, evasive. Shadows overtake the corners of his eyes. "I'm a little worried about Itachi. I think something bad is going to happen to him."

-o-

Actually, it's Shisui upon whom misfortune falls.

A grimy twilight finds him falling across the threshold in a clatter of limbs, arm broken, clothes ripped in a dozen places. When Madara removes the poison capsule from his mouth, several of Shisui's teeth come with it, eager blood darkening the arches of his gum.

"Ambush," Shisui chokes, spitting and coughing. "I don't think they know it's me, but they know."

"Someone must have suspected something," Madara says, with as much urgency as he can muster.

Shisui nods with difficulty. "It was an ANBU. The captain of Yagura's personal guard."

"Terumi Mei."

Shisui doesn't question how he came into possession of this knowledge, which saves Madara the awful trouble of having to explain how he oh-so-meticulously tipped her off himself. The sound of his breathing, shallow, labored – in and out, in and out – suggests shattered ribs. A pause, a whimper, a sigh, and the crooning laughter of the wind in the distance. His fingers flutter helplessly in the air before grasping Madara's bony hand, a mute appeal. He coughs and a shower of blood sprays Madara's clothes, thin, red, and piteous. A terrible tableau.

There's nothing worse than the sight of a fallen hero, humiliated and undignified, spread out in his lover's lap like a limp sack of flesh.

It makes the slightest twinge of culpability raise a timid finger to tap at the back of his skull, but it will not be let in. The will to power is too strong in him, too forceful, and the emptiness it has gouged inside him is such that every other upheaval now seems negligible, barely a scratch on the skin, numbed from too many years living like this.

To make progress he must conquer.

It's not just about building a dream and tearing it down, but it's also the spectacle of demolition, the obligation to stay and watch it all come tumbling. The history of pain is only his to document. He is the longest hair, white before the rest. He is the burned meat on the plate of a prisoner's last meal. He is the purveyor of greatness. He is the mutilator of innocence.

-o-

"It's over," Madara says, stepping into the bedroom. "They are going to release the Sanbi. The Godaime Mizukage has been appointed."

Shisui raises his head wearily from his sickbed. "I've failed you."

"On the contrary, you've done a splendid job. A change will come." He can already see the shape of it in the village's rising bones. "The people of this land should thank you."

"But they won't."

"No," Madara says, and the bitterness in his voice is only half-affected. "That is how these things go. They will come for us. It's only a matter of time."

"I'm going back to Konoha," Shisui says, dragging himself up with effort. "You should come with me," he goes on, and Madara raises an eyebrow in spite of himself, wondering if the next thing Shisui will say might be something like, "I promise to do right by you."

"I cannot leave," he says, reciting empty, nebulous lines. "My heart sleeps in this land. In truth, my soul has been dead for years, and my body has lived on only to see this day."

That must hurt, a stray basket splint striking quick into clumsy skin. "But you promised," Shisui protests, gasping from the freshly inflicted wound. "You promised to stay with me."

"Only while you're here." Gentleness, at its core, is just entropy-in-action. "It was good while it lasted, wasn't it?"

Shisui doesn't answer. Dismay flounders in his bloodshot eyes. His unbearable distress can be heard, like there's a soft, sighing hole in his chest, and through it, his lungs flex in and out. What is lost? The life that he has lived here, warm-tinged with cooking fire, rich with wood smoke.

What remains?

Slowly, he turns to face the wall, completely beleaguered. Retribution prowls on the horizon.

-o-

Shisui stands in the doorway with a small travel pack slung over his shoulder. "I have to go," he says, superfluously. "I've been summoned."

His bruises haven't yet faded, and when he speaks it sounds like there's a blockade in his throat, stiff, choking, relentless. That's the place where love and resentment come to mingle, birthing a sour taste that never quite goes away. The bleached summer light is so bright and vast that he can make out as if in an X-ray Shisui's limbs through his clothes.

"So this is goodbye."

"No," Shisui insists. "I'll come back."

Madara smiles ruefully. "That's not possible. The nets are closing in, the way back will be barred to you. You should leave now while you still can." He feels almost sad, because in a way, this is the end of something. "Go home, Shisui-kun. You've done enough. Go back to your family."

Shisui lifts his chin stubbornly. "That isn't my home anymore. I'll come back."

Layers and layers, being stripped off. They've almost reached the core. He can taste the iron of its blood in their goodbye kiss.

-o-

So Shisui leaves, and this time, he will not follow. This time, he will wait. If Shisui doesn't come back, the hedge will have failed. His patience will have yielded poor fruit, and he will lose.

But then, what are the chances of that?

He'll wait.

-o-

A storm comes rolling in from the west. Planes of water slice through the air, and then slabs of it, as thunder grumbles behind the clouds and hard winds whip into the black, brazen face of the mountain. The sky, having held its peace for so long, now sticks its slimy wet tongue down from above and laps up every inch of earth it can reach, tears tree branches aside to get at more.

Madara stands below the edge of the roof, close enough to the rain to have its cool breath on his throat. The world is dividing. He can feel the sundering like a blade.

Night.

"Kazuya-san… Please open the door…"

Shisui staggers through the door, and the storm surges in after him, so delighted to receive these alms. Shisui, of course, is sopping wet, everything hair down numb with cold. He doesn't even seem to notice that Madara is no longer limping, that the cloth of his garment is dark. It's only fitting: Shisui himself has taken that place. Tragedy hobbles heroes – and redeems them.

"I've come back."

"I can see that. What has happened?"

Shisui doesn't speak, but Madara knows that he's staring down into the fissure at his feet, the gulf of emptiness that he must leap over, that widens with each second left undecided. All this vastness has no place in it for men, let alone great ones. Caught in the pre-trembling of a house that must fall, he who was once provider and protector shivers with a child's frightened need.

They've come a little bit full-circle, haven't they?

Madara runs his fingers in idle patterns through wet, glossy curls. "Shisui-kun," he says, very gently, soft as a mother's lullaby. "Would you like me to help you?"

"Yes."

"And in exchange for my help, what would you do?"

"Anything." His face is wet, perhaps not just with rainwater. It seems incapable of holding together a coherent emotion.

The cure for anything is salt-water – sweat, tears, or the sea.

"I'd do anything."

"Then look up."

And as Shisui's head lifts obediently, a growl of thunder sings the final curtain down. The painted lambskin sloughs off, and the foul snout of the wolf at last emerges from beneath. Shisui's eyes, always dark and serious, grow wide and opaque with despair, as the face that he has loved for last three years tears and tears away.

"Oh God," he chokes. "Oh God."

-o-

A moonless night. The wind filters through the apertures in the rotten wood of the pier, rousing a chorus of low moans. The night boat that will smuggle Shisui back out of the Water Country rocks a little in the black-green water. At the end, as was at the beginning, there is a silent sea.

"Do you remember my instructions?" Madara asks, sliding his hand softly up Shisui's spine.

To his credit, Shisui doesn't immediately flinch away. "Yes," he says, and swallows compulsively. It takes a moment before the last hollow syllables would come. "Madara-sama."

Not even a faint glimmer remains of the sheen in his eyes that used to signal adoration and adulation. Now faded away like the morning dew. He is almost insensate to the world outside his head, having finally learned that, yes, even forbidden things can taste bitter.

"Don't worry," Madara says. "I will fulfill my promise. I will stay with you until the end." He's always placed great value on thoroughness. I will be with you before you think to call my name.

Tomorrow he will again make that journey across the restless, undulating ocean, like a dark crosswind dogging his disciple's heels. There is nothing they can do against his coming. He will come, so that at the very last moment, just before the dirty water surges over his paling face and his seventeen-year-old soul leaves its body, Shisui will be able to look up at his unholy ghost and hear the same whispered words, hear it in the mourning wind.

I am with you still.

With one last, sweet exhalation, Uchiha Shisui will consummate his journey, reaching the end of his reachless path.

-o-

appendix: the hero laments his lost love

It is years before he hears Shisui's name mentioned again, and by then, he's already halfway through another fool's heroic arc.

"Do you remember Shisui, Madara-sama?"

Itachi lifts his eyes from the shogi board, and they are an open book, still glistening with that pitiful hunger even after all these years.

"Kisame told me that the two of you crossed paths while in Kirigakure."

"Yes," Madara replies, and takes Itachi's chariot. "Of course I remember Shisui."

"What did you think of him?"

"If I recall," he trails off. "He was quite heroic."

Itachi tilts his face away. There's something abominably farcical in the way he makes elegance of useless things. The proud lift of the chin. The agonizing sadness of the eyes. All the hopeless gestures that could be loosely categorized under waiting, because that is what waiting looks like.

Madara has no pity to spare him, having long unlearned generosity. It's your own fault for choosing someone who went so far away.

He goes on, ruthless, "It's such a pity that the time we live in is no age for heroes, isn't it?"