A/N: This was an innocuous attempt to get this fascinating minor character out of my head, and it only succeeded in making me even more Mito-crazy.

Disclaimer: The summary quote is from a poem by J. Willard Marriott.

Enjoy!


Hashirama learns the hard way that death is fairly tolerable: a friend's gaze locked in his own, a friend's hand missing his heart by a margin so narrow he had thought it impossible, creating a wound that, if he survives the night, will ache with the rains for years to come. Madara's eyes bleed red liquid and golden light from the fires. Kaleidescope patterns. Izuna's quiet shine still gilds them, strangely. As Hashirama's own vision darkens and the kyuubi's claws tear his skin to ribbons, he closes his eyes, waiting for the last great wave of pain. He wonders if reinforcements have come; if he sent for reinforcements; if his village will leave him for dead as his friend has, as every regret in the world bleeds from between his ribs and coats Madara's fingers with a thick liquid as red as love. He is dying. The world below the living pulls at him, draws him with hooked talons out of his skin—

And then a female voice, clear against the wall of sound, calls, "Let him be."

~X~

The Kyuubi is a creature of ash and fire, but when she closes her eyes, it is nothing but an aching point of light.

"Name your price," she says, flinging the words into the night. "My ancestors sacrificed their virgins to you, and I too am willing to abide by that custom."

Its laughter is filled with teeth.

"You sacrifice yourself to protect this man," it says, broken-glass glittering even as she expected a roar. "It is not the action of a virgin."

"That man belongs to this village," she replies coldly. "While I am here, this village belongs to me, and I will bear its burdens. A child of Uzushiogakure pays for her long life with constant service."

"Prices, payments," it dismisses. "If you speak of them with such abandon, you should know the basic principle of negotiations. What will you offer me?"

She casts a glance at the man beyond her line of sight, a shadow with the night behind him, perched on the highest branch of a tree like a dark flame. His hand, thrust deep into Hashirama's chest, gleams wetly, but the Shodaime's face is wetter still.

"Your freedom," she shouts. "Let him be."

It growls at her then, and she knows she has won. The rest is simply a matter of inching down from the terrible height she has scaled.

"Does this befit you?" she calls without sound, speaking directly to the formless malevolence inside her mind. "Controlled like a pet by the Uchiha, under genjutsu so thick you can barely breathe?"

"What do you know of it?" it shoots back.

"The Uchiha's genjutsu will break if you leave this world for another," she says. "I can be your way out."

"How?"

"Pour your consciousness into me," she says. "He has no power over my mind."

She has done her calculations correctly. A column of fire bursts out of the kyuubi's raging form and plunges again to the earth, barrelling towards her with the greatest speed imaginable, Hashirama cries out. She sees him fall forward as if in slow motion, and the slower widening of Madara's eyes as he realizes what she is doing. Her mouth falls open of its own accord and the column of fire plunges in, searing her lips and her throat with a tight acidic burn; she wants to scream but for the complete invasion of her senses. It is all she can do to keep breathing. Falling to her knees, she clutches at her robes, doubles up, widens her eyes to signal her pain. But even as the Kyuubi's consciousness fills her, she knows there is no time to waste. She draws the scroll she has prepared, slaps it on the ground, and swabs her fingers along a gash in her arm. Quickly she scrawls her name and the seventeen characters she has been developing since the day Uchiha Madara first began to look at Hashirama with narrowed eyes. The blood glows brilliant for a moment before melting into the sepia color of very old ink.

"Enjoy your freedom," she says grimly, and thrusts both palms onto the sealing scroll.

The last thing she hears before she faints is the beast's roar of impotent rage, and above that, so soft she can barely hear it, Hashirama's cry as he falls, a sound floundering beyond consciousness like a long rope unwinding.

~X~

He wakes up in a medical tent, so heavily sedated he believes he has grown an extra head. Sunlight pools on the walls and the floor and the red hair of the girl in the next bed over. She is daubing her stomach with a wet cloth. When she looks at him from the corner of her eye, he is suddenly acutely conscious of her nakedness. Flushing, he turns and faces the tent wall.

"It's all right," comes Uzumaki Mito's serene voice. "I'm finished."

He turns back cautiously. She has, thankfully, shrugged her white robe back on. Through the thin opening between its halves, he can discern a streak of black ink on her skin. She catches his gaze and pulls the coverlet over herself.

"No, I don't want to see," he says, and immediately feels like an ass. "I mean—it's not that I mind seeing, if you—er…"

She gazes at him coolly. "It's quite all right, Hashirama-san. I felt it might bother you."

"I—what?"

He is fairly sure they're not speaking about the same thing at all.

She clasps the top of the robe shut and pulls it partway open at the middle, and he nearly breaks his neck trying to swivel away from her again. She makes a small exasperated noise and he realizes she's showing him a design done in black ink on her stomach, for reasons which are completely escaping him at the moment.

"That's…nice," he says diplomatically, if stupidly. "A…circle, is it?"

"It's a five-element seal."

"It's very…" He gropes for an appropriate word and settles arbitrarily on "bohemian."

"It keeps the kyuubi housed within me," she says, expression changing not a whit.

Hashirama decides he is more sedated than he thinks.

"Is that so," he says. "Well, in that case, it might be prudent to—"

She knocks him out with a single handwritten tag to the forehead. When he wakes up, druglessly awake and as refreshed as if he has had a very long sleep, her hair is sweat-soaked over the pillows, ink-stained fingers clutching at the blanket around the seal, and her mouth so tense that he knows something terrible has happened to them, even before the forced amnesia of the drugs wears away. He reads the memory of the night before on her tightened lips.

The fear comes, held at arm's length only by that sight: her capable hands, folded on the coverlet like exact, methodical instruments.

~X~

Hashirama is discharged as soon as his bandages come off, but he stays with her that night, ostensibly to assure that the honorable Uzushiogakure delegate's recovery is undisturbed. He falls asleep at some point before the midnight hour and she is the one to keep watch over him instead. His head lolls in the strange underwater movement of dreams, and his long hair catches on her bracelet when she reaches out to make him more comfortable. He jerks awake almost instantly.

"What is it?" he asks. "Mito-san? Is there something I can do for you?"

She declines and apologizes. Then she sees an awful expression break over his face: the look of someone who has sought refuge in sleep and dicovered that the waking, when it comes, is all the more terrible for those few fleeting moments of peace.

"What have I done?" he says, a low and breaking arrangement of sounds, barely words at all, and then cries "What have I done?"

And so it is that she is the only person in Konoha to witness the Shodaime grieve for his friend. She is the only person to hear the three syllables he will never say in conscious life again, but in this incarnation whispers again and again in increasingly more horrified tones, Madara falling from his lips like a desperate prayer. His hair in disarray and eyes crumpled against the world, he looks nothing like the leader he is. It disorients her enough to reach out and, quite firmly, place her hand on his forehead, smoothing away sweat and harsh tenses under her fingers as if her touch burns. And then, as if he realizes who she is, his eyes widen.

"I—I am sorry," he apologizes, still shaking. "This is not at all…becoming."

She shakes her head. The riotous sadness in his face threatens to overwhelm him. She is abruptly conscious of her hands, fingers still knotted in the hair at his temples in a jarringly intimate way, and then, like a true kunoichi, she recognizes the deceptiveness of distances. She drives her fingers a few centimeters back, cups the back of his head with her palm, and draws him to her shoulder. The unthinkable journey of a few moments ago is complete.

Her shoulderblade is sharp and uncomfortable, but he falls asleep within moments.

In the morning, watching the shadow of trees on his face, she forgets that the first time he sought comfort from her, it was for someone else.

~X~

The Valley of the End and the subsequent months have the result that they treat one another like old comrades: he shows up at her door unannounced and empty-handed; she gets him meals which don't taste like anything, and they sit on opposite sides of her desk and do things like write reports in complete silence. It's the best silence he's ever had. He likes everything about her apartment: neat stacks of documents, steam rising in lazy spirals from the pickled rice that is one of the only things she can cook, the way she never even attempts to make small talk. He considers that this is another thing she simply has no idea how to do.

After a few weeks of this, he starts to talk to her. It's like filling up a decanter and emptying it again. He tells her that the crops in the southern wheat fields are coming in again and her suggestion of rotation worked well. He tells her that his cousin Toka has been appointed commander of the guard; she's a genjutsu mistress and better than every Uchiha who applied for the position, but he's worried he's going to get hit with charges of nepotism. He tells her they're carving his face on the mountain. He tells her it's been nearly half a year and the wound above his heart still aches.

After a few more weeks, she starts to talk back. She tells him rotation works because it's a proven scientific fact and she has documentation and he can take a look at it if he wants, which he doesn't, but she shows him anyway. She tells him to hold a tournament (Toka destroys the competition, not that Mito sees it, since tournaments bore her and she spends the entire time reading behind her folding fan). She tells him to get his hair cut before they begin the sculpting.

She never has anything to say about the last, but he never wants her to. In her presence, he is free to ignore the fact of the sword in Madara's ribcage, bleeding away the red heartblood he once would have shed for him, given up in any capacity, and she is free to ignore the subject of the five-element seal and the kyuubi's chakra, cold and brutal under her skin.

Mostly they speak of things that have nothing to do with their wounds and their village. People call him a visionary and they call her a theorist and the two are separate only in matters of technicality, so sometimes they speak about what lies beyond the five countries, past Kiri's oceans and Kumo's mountains, on the other side where the Senju and their thousand forests were never able to penetrate. Mito thinks there is only water there; she reasons that if there weren't, others would have mapped it long ago.

"Not necessarily," he tells her. "The frontier is almost never what one expects."

"You would know," she replies, loading her brush with more ink.

"Someone from Konoha will see it someday. With enough provisions—and I could always grow things, there could be an entire new country made…"

"Perhaps there already is one. I'm coming to believe you thrive on upending lifestyles, not enemies."

"You must admit it would be desirable. A place free of clan affiliations or any traditions at all—"

Later he will realize how thoroughly their conversations are saturated with places abandoned: long and unfilled spaces between sentences, tea steam leaking over the open window that seems like the edge of the world, the longing that never quite leaves his bloodstream and the foreign entity that has taken up residence in hers. They cling to the idea of the place beyond because the places they know don't hold them properly anymore.

In their silence on the real subject, he finds some small measure of peace.

~X~

On the night of the sealing, Mito had told it, "If I die, you will die within me."

As it regains its full strength, however, the kyuubi tests how far it can take her body. In the third month it breaks both of her legs; when they have healed, it collapses her nerve by nerve; wracks her with illness from within, battering her muscles with wave after wave of gut-scorching heat. This last takes her too close to death's door for comfort, and as she screams in the medical cot the illness recedes as suddenly as it came, leaving the medics baffled.

Let me go, it growls, snapping at her spine. Release me.

Hashirama is the only one who takes it upon himself to wait by her bedside. As she surfaces from wave after wave of unconsciousness, she sees his eyes, always worried, and his cool hand on her forehead brings her back from the fever every time.

"You saved us," he says. Voice under layers and layers of water, sound filtered through pain. "Hold on—"

She goes under again, waiting for the next great wave of agony, but it doesn't come. After a while the kyuubi is silent. She spends days turning away from her reflection, frightened that she will look into the mirror to the sight of golden eyes, red hair lengthening. She floats in a haze of sunlight and tense, miserable hours. She had seen many sealings before—sickness, knowledge, anything could have been sealed with her clan's techniques, but the fact of something sentient sharing her senses and her life force is something different, as if she plays host to a parasite that will eventually corrode her away, leave her an empty husk.

Hashirama keeps talking to her. Pours into her the sensation of that place beyond place, the unmapped country, far outside the realm of Konoha's cartography. She wants to visit that unfettered place he describes and so she tells him she believes in it, although she doesn't know if she does. They measure their days in cups of tea and lonely nights filled with the presence of another's voice, something, anything to remove her mind from the flesh-colored cage her body has become.

One day, in the middle of some sort of worried homily on the Hyuuga clan's unwillingness to intermingle with non-bloodline clans, he tells her that his clan elders have begun arranging prospective omiai for him. He furrows his brow as he always does, then returns to enumerating the difficulties in bringing the older Hyuuga to the negotiation table.

She is drafting a medicinal seal at the time. She sets her brush down, embarassed at the way her fingers are shaking, and manages to keep her voice completely steady as she says, "Hashirama-san. Please excuse my forwardness, but have you ever considered—"

~X~

He will later feel exceptionally stupid that he responds with, "That is—that—are you really-well. Well. It does make sense…"

~X~

Among a village that has inaugarated its birth with all that is grand and earth-shaking; the small rituals of their wedding are easy to ignore: counted sips of sake, half-rolled mats, red string with ceramic beads knotted into it. Her new husband goes through the motions with his eyes empty and shoulders tense, a man underwater. It seems that if he moves quickly he will break her bones to pieces. But instead he moves carefully, as if conscious of this himself. He holds her wrist only with the red thread as he leads her out into the sunlight.

They are presented with endless scrolls both ceremonial and political, and at some point the priest asks for her signature. Then she picks up the brush and stops dead, confronted with the fact that, despite noting it in a detached way on various official documents, she has no idea which kanji to use for her new last name.

She sits there quite awkwardly for several moments, making eye contact with various people as if stalling is her aim and she has no intent of completing her task on time. Senju Tobirama is raising his eyebrows at her. Hashirama's young cousin, the genjutsu mistress, is discreetly forming emergency seals. Mito is about to give up and ask when suddenly a large hand covers her own and her brush makes a neat downward stroke.

Alarmed, she glances up.

"May I?" he asks.

His eyes are kind, so she nods and looks back down.

They form a few more characters. Lift, swab for more ink. His hand on hers, Senju Mito as easy as if he has practiced it hundreds of times before, as well he might have; she doesn't know, she knows nothing about what is going through his head. He uses the wrong character for the mi of her name. She resists, and he stops his movements courteously, allowing her to steer the brush, yet not releasing his gentle pressure. When he finally lifts his hand, her palms are sweating so hard she can barely grasp the blotter.

"There you are," he says, lips uncannily soft on the skin of her ear. "Will you remember next time?"

She panics, does something she has never done in all her years of research, and accidentally upends the tray of ink. It cascades in rivulets all over the scroll and their kimonos and the teakwood desk, dripping and touching him and sticking under her fingernails, a bruise-colored presence like night or air or breath. Their guests spring up, bringing napkins or daubing down their kimono, but the two of them stay seated, staring.

"…I will," she says.

The priest glares. Hashirama smiles. Mito smiles back, and inside her mind, the blue sky opens, swells, and flies wide like a far-flung banner.

~X~

Hashirama knew beforehand in a detached, academic sort of way that there would only be one bed, but the reality is considerably more awkward than he expected. He looks at Mito, who is listing slightly from side to side in platform geta about twelve inches tall, and makes a decision. In a fit of misguided chivalry, he spontaneously creates a small futon for himself and gestures her towards the bed.

"Don't be ridiculous," says Mito, stumbling as she steps gingerly out of the geta and begins to unwind her obi. "There is more than enough room."

"It seems…improper," he tries.

She gives him a look that flays him limb from limb, and he very nearly cringes.

"All right," he placates. "I am…not tired. I believe I will read for a while."

It is possibly the stupidest statement he could have made. The marital bedroom has been filled with chains of fragrant tuberoses, caricaturishly sultry candles, and a few embarassing shunga-style murals of people in various states of amorous disarray, the latter probably procured by Tobirama to serve as a tastelessly pointed reminder about how the "marriage" part of "marriage of convenience" is supposed to proceed. One thing that is noticeably absent is any sort of reading material.

Mito, perpetually unruffled, offers him a scroll from her satchel. He inches over to the bed, peels the cover back, and settles himself on the very edge.

"Er," he says, somewhat awkwardly. "May I…?"

"Yes," she replies.

He edges slightly further onto the mattress. Pretending this is comfortable, he unties the red thread of the scroll and opens it. Much to his dismay, it bears the legend "Immunological Properties of Supplementary Medicinal Intervention Seals in a Closed Environment," but he gamely acts as if this is extremely interesting.

After a few moments he looks over to find that she has abruptly fallen asleep atop the covers, apparently in the midst of unknotting the red ceremonial thread from around her wrist. It's a shocking sight. He realizes that he never really envisioned her doing anything as prosaic as sleeping; she is always collected, studying her scrolls or going straight from meetings to her apartment or stirring her tasteless rice with practiced disinterest, but here she is, head just a little shy of the pillow and her mouth much looser in sleep. He hesitates, then leans over and undoes the knot of the red thread.

She doesn't move. He watches her in puzzlement, already marveling at how easy it is to get used to the sight—Mito, ordinary—and then, feeling reassured, sets the scroll on the night table and blows out the lantern.

~X~

Her mother's letter from Uzushiogakure is covered with lines and lines about bodily functions that make her slightly queasy, but she reads them anyway and faithfully memorizes the calligraphed tags for fertility seals and conception seals and cleansing seals and others besides. Her father's note, tucked into the scroll case like an afterthought, says simply Keep learning.

So she does. She learns that Senju Hashirama, leader of the modern world, is incapable of functioning in the morning and nods right through anything thrown at him until about noon, up to and including official matters. She learns that he can sew better than she can when, upon hearing about the deplorable state of shinobi garments, she goes to check on his collection of tabi socks only to find that they have already been darned impeccably, with stitches the size of baby corn kernels.

She learns that he takes his tea with five—five!—spoonfuls of sugar, a quantity which she plans to stealthily decrease as sufficient time passes, and that when he is working, he braids his long hair over his shoulder instead of tying it back. He uses a red ribbon for the purpose, which seems inappropriate, but when she offers him one of her discreet bamboo-weave ties he blushes and politely declines. She learns that he falls asleep at his desk more often than his bed, but if anyone attempts to move him, he jolts up instantly, muttering to himself about things like five-ply grain and deciduous ferns.

She learns that the reason he doesn't sleep properly at night has to do with nightmares, which come with great regularity and force, and that he never screams, just sits upright, shaking silently, until she wakes up with the sound of the bedsprings creaking as he rocks back and forth. He always apologizes when this happens. They are both embarassed at this, the intense invasion of something as private as the other's sleep.

She learns the forbidden name with its three syllables all over again, because he says it with such unconscious regularity, and at strange times: during sleep, sometimes, muttering it like an expletive at meetings, and once or twice, next to her in the bed, biting his lip fiercely against it as his body jerks under the covers. These last are the hardest; she lies like a statue barely daring to breathe, unwilling to let him know she is awake. She sees his shadow in the washroom as he cleans himself up. One hand over his eyes, shoulders heaving as his body tries to purge itself of its sadness.

Sometimes she sets out a fresh scroll and tries to write to her parents, but she is never sure what to say. The fact is that she always assumed that she would someday return to the house among the vineyards, but in brokering her marriage to a foreigner she sealed herself away from that world for good. In an inchoate way, she yearns for the sensation of touch—hands on her hair, fingers on her cheek, telling that what she did was the correct thing to do and her husband will take some time, all things worth waiting for take time. Her parents send her packages of silks and dried foods she misses and all their love, but it isn't nearly enough.

The implication is clear: this is her home now. No longer a traveler in a foreign land; she is a grafted limb, transplanted with the expectation of assimilation.

Ultimately, she puts pen to paper and begins, not lying: He is a very kind man

~X~

One day in a fit of aimless cognition it occurs to Hashirama that the girl he has married might like a wedding present. He asks her if this is so and she gives him one of her typically condescending, slightly pitying looks.

"It was done more than a month ago," she says.

They have somehow gotten into the habit of referring to their wedding as if to a mildly unpleasant but ultimately necessary vaccination.

"It was fairly rushed. I thought you might appreciate something to commemorate the occasion, that's all. How are weddings celebrated in your village?"

To his complete horror, her face suddenly crumples. She retains her composure admirably quickly and continues tracing whatever seal she is attempting to learn, but he thinks he sees her accidentally leave a blot of ink in the lower quadrant of the parchment. He is assailed by a sudden moment of insight.

"Mito-san—do you miss your village?"

That time she definitely leaves a splash. They both eye it in trepidation; she is so neurotically fastidious about her seals that it is actually somewhat terrifying.

Finally she reaches for the blotter and says, "I am not some coddled old-clan princess, Hashirama-san. I came to Konoha and proposed to—proposed—proposed our agreement of my own volition, and I am well aware that in Konoha married women do not return to their families."

"All right," he says.

When he turns back to his own work, he glances over his shoulder briefly and notices that she is looking out the window, chin propped on her hand, her brush serenely dripping ink onto the half-completed seal diagram. She has a smudge of ink on her cheek and as always, some under her fingernails, and her considering gaze is so strangely disconnected it seems that at any moment she might disengage from his reality and make contact with that place beyond the glass, beyond Konoha. Shafts of light pin her edges down to the desk and the work she has laid out in front of her. Still she looks away. A stranger in his house, a young girl, only twenty-two, as he is himself. He suddenly feels words swell up in his throat, but he says none of them, and the window of opportunity passes. A cloud obscures the haze of golden light from outside. She blinks once and returns to her documents.

The next day, he finds himself standing in front of the village council, concocting the most inane possible excuse he can come up with to arrange a trip to Uzushiogakure.

~X~

The Uzumaki estate is a low, sprawling compound situated at the top of a patchwork spread of vineyards. The house seems to topple and slip in on itself with the motion of multiple terraces flowing down the stepped fields, so different from Konoha, with its slender heights. The moment the carriage halts, Mito leaps down and lands lightly on her feet. Something breaks in her and she runs down the walkway, gathering up her kimono as she goes. The scent of the grapes and the earth is so strong her knees nearly grow weak before she enters the house.

Her mother and father are standing at the gate, waiting for her. She draws herself up short, suddenly conscious of her lopsided headdress and the disarrayed seal tags hanging from her hair ornaments.

"O-oto-san," she stammers. "It's wonderful to—"

"You fool," her father interrupts. "Are you going to stand there all day?"

She takes two steps and throws herself into his arms.

~X~

Mito's mother, a woman whose smile is as enigmatic as her daughter's stare, gives Hashirama a soft fall robe and a shawl for the evenings before showing him to Mito's old room and allowing him a few hours' rest. She pauses for a few moments there as if unsure what to say, and finally holds forth with, "Please let us know if there is anything we can do for you, Senju-san."

He understands the significance of the title. She is addressing him not as himself, but as the representative with whom the Uzumaki made the alliance treaty years ago, reminding him of her place in relation to him and to his marriage. It discomfits him somewhat.

"Thank you, Uzumaki-san," he replies. "I think I will be very comfortable. Your home is lovely."

She smiles all sweet and sharp; he knows enough of Mito know to recognize her expressions in another. "There are several new strains of frost-resistant fruit we have been cultivating—perhaps you would be interested in seeing them later? Mito has let us know of your interest in horticulture."

"She has?"

"My daughter," she says, somewhat silkily, "makes it a point of pride to document her environs."

The only other person he has ever heard use the word "environs" in daily conversation is, fittingly, Mito herself. Hashirama has no idea what to say, so he settles for a deep bow, deeper than the occasion warrants.

Mito's room is unlike her room at home, which, he realizes belatedly is also his room, so it makes sense. Her parents have kept her desk exactly as it is—it's a strange desk, a circular construction with a space in the middle for a chair. There are multiple stacks of papers. Frowning at the top few, he notices a rudimentary design of the five-element seal.

Mito's sealing of the kyuubi is never discussed between them because he has no idea what to say about it. By all accounts, she did what he should have done, saved the village and put herself in the line of fire without a moment's pause, and he knows in a guarded sort of way that the fact of one person's sacrifice is something never to be touched or analyzed. Someone had once told him that the word sacrifice held the word sacred within it, and that the former could only exist in the presence of the latter. He wonders who it was and realizes with the strange jolt of a suppressed memory that it was Izuna, Uchiha Izuna, always a quiet and yet invaluable presence at the conference table. Of course, then. He would have known.

Somehow it makes him feel unclean, the thought of a younger Mito painstakingly copying out the seal in some rush of newfound theoretical knowledge. He wonders what had gone through her mind in the moment she had realized she would actually have to use it. He wonders what she had found so sacred.

There is an opened scroll case sitting on top of the stacks of papers, so incongruous among the neatness of the rest of the desk's contents that he knows her mother must have left it there. He picks it up and retrieves the document inside it.

In his wife's handwriting, it begins He is a very kind man…

Hashirama sits at Mito's circular desk. He reads her letter. Then he puts his head in his hands, his mind awash with the fact that she has done what no one else has done in his life: observed him with her scientist's eye, taken nothing from him but the simple fact of his existence, sleeping at his desk, braiding his hair, taking tea with five spoonfuls of sugar. In her letter he is not rival, or Hokage, or lover—she defines him not against herself, but against nothing at all, evaluated exactly as he is.

Perhaps, then, he knows what it is she holds sacred after all.

~X~

"So, then," says her father, "I imagine you used a five-element seal, did you?" and she is completely stunned, because she studiously avoids the subject in all her correspondences home. No parent, after all, would be pleased to learn of what she did.

"Ye—no," she says immediately, face coloring. "I have no idea what you are talking about, oto-san."

"Trade caravans are always in the habit of coming and going. One came by about four months ago. Naturally I asked after news of Konoha, having a child there, and as you might imagine, I was fairly surprised when I learned that this jinchuuriki figure was in fact a young lady of my acquaintance."

"I—I'm very sorry, oto-san. You never said anything."

"I must confess I was waiting to see when you would mention it," he says, raising his eyebrows. "I suppose I should be grateful that you wrote to us of your marriage, at least."

The remark is unexpectedly hurtful. "I married the Hokage, oto-san," she argues. "You met Hashirama-san when he came here to finalize the alliance with our clan. I don't think a better match exists in the shinobi world."

"He was nineteen, Mito. And he clung to that—what was his name—that Uchiha boy like a barnacle. I didn't raise you to settle for some two-bit shinobi's seconds."

She winces. Her father's tone is deliberately crass; he knows Uchiha Madara's name, everyone knows his name.

"It was nothing improper," she says finally. "I suggested it because he was—broken, oto-san. It broke him. What would he have done with a—" She stops, shocked that she nearly allowed herself to voice the silent thought in the lining of her mind, a real wife.

"And it didn't break you? Tell me, is he as considerate of your feelings as you apparently are of his?"

"He has shown me nothing but kindness," she says sharply, and doesn't mention his silhouette behind the washroom door, wracked with guilt.

Her father places a hand on her cheek. It's a gesture he has always made since she was very small and her vision was so bad she had to wear her monocle almost perpetually, the weight dragging her face down until she went about her day shaking her head like a confused little fish. The hand on her cheek had steadied her then, as it steadies her now.

"I am disappointed." His tone physically hurts her, somewhere behind her ribcage where she imagines the kyuubi lives when she tries to contemplate it. "It's saddening to me that you have somehow come away with the idea that all we wanted for you was a socially advantageous marriage."

She finds she has nothing to say to this.

"Never mind that, then," he says gruffly. They both blink for a few moments. They are scholars and this manner of conversation is unfamiliar to them, too messy, too visceral. "Why don't you show me this seal of yours? Let's check if you got the job done properly, at least."

He turns away while she undoes her obi and ties her underrobe more tightly over her breasts. She pulls the robe apart at her stomach and her father examines the seal carefully, two fingers held straight to sense the chakra in the individual brush strokes.

"Good," he says absently, noting the earth fortifications she has used to construct the "prison" aspect of the seal. "Very minimalist, as the best seals are. How long did this take to draw?"

"Not long. About six seconds."

"Six seconds? In melee combat? How did you have that much time?"

She explains how she followed Hashirama and Madara to the Valley, how they had engaged in their duel, and how she had stayed out of the fray entirely until it had gotten out of hand. He clucks his tongue, disapproving.

"Very like shinobi to ignore their women when they should be paying attention," he notes. "It served you well in this case, however. Where are your space-time coordinates?"

"Here," she says, pointing to the "water" fortification.

"I see you have gone to the trouble of including two-way transit. Is there a reason for that?"

"In case I need to communicate with it."

"Excuse me?"

"It has a consciousness, oto-san. It could potentially be expedient to use its chakra as, in a sense, a weapon of some nature. Or perhaps as extra reserves."

"You've never been a particularly good kunoichi, Mito. Perhaps you should say a seal expert, stick to the scholarly side of things."

"A seal expert knows much more about chakra control than a…particularly good kunoichi would."

"True, I suppose." He sighs, blowing out his breath in an irritated huff. "All the same, I intend to have a talk with that husband of yours about this…creature in your stomach."

"What?"

They both turn. Hashirama is standing in the doorway with his face a shade of red she has never actually seen before, looking half apologetic and half completely horrified. Mito's father raises his eyebrows at her, then strides over to her nervous husband and claps him reassuringly on the shoulder.

"Not what you think," he says. "But when that happens, we'll have a talk about that as well. If it happens," he says darkly, and shoots an accusing glance at Mito before leaving the room.

"I, ah," says Hashirama. "I think your father just…insulted my—well, never mind that, anyway. Your mother sent me. She wants you to show me the—the wines-on-the-vine? Is that correct?"

"Yes," says Mito, trying not to smile. "I'm afraid one of my sisters named them when she was very young, and the name stuck. You might find them interesting. Would you like to see them before dinner?"

"…If it wouldn't trouble you."

"It wouldn't. Come with me, then."

~X~

Mito takes him down a high, wild lane at the edge of the vineyard, from which looking down they can see the entire valley spread out beneath them like a picnic blanket. She shifts a vine with her wrist and draws out a small, hidden cluster of grapes, flushed a deep gold in the waning sunlight.

"—sealed the sweetness in with this tag here, so the fermentation process begins on the vine itself. Hence, wines-on-the-vine. The process saves time, and ultimately the flavor is sweeter than anything you can find naturally."

"Did you make alterations to the seeds or the root?"

"The root."

"May I, in that case?"

"Of course."

He digs his fingers into the soil under the wooden stakes, reaching with slim chakra tendrils towards the essence of the plant. Slender and supportive, the thinness of the vines a counterpoint to the slim curve of Mito's wrist. He notes the delicacy and composition of the seal. Respects the way she has known to let the plant grow, not constraining its natural development, simply holding it secure.

"It's…lovely work," he says. "Your mother was right to know I would enjoy seeing them. Thank you."

"It was my pleasure. Would you like to taste one?"

He is struck by the vintage color of the grapes against her pale hand. So much depth, her childhood, the things she had loved, contained there in the small globules. Things he knows nothing about, although she demonstrated in her letter to her parents that she knows them about him, things no one has noticed until her.

She misinterprets his expression and brings the grapes to her mouth, reassuring him that it's all right to eat. She demonstrates by taking one between her front teeth, and a small trickle of juice turns her lower lip so gloriously, luxuriantly pink he feels quite certain the color will never come again in all his life. The sight of the grape's skin breaking in her mouth undoes him. He realizes after the fact that he has taken her chin and tilted her up to face him fully, that her wide eyes are watching him as if he has done something completely appalling, that the streak of dirt on her nose is as much a part of her as the tendrils of hair dusting her cheekbones. He smiles; it stands to reason that the only thing that could surprise his wife is the thing that he should have, by all rights, done months ago.

Her mouth, indeed, is as sweet as she promised.

"They taste wonderful," he tells her. A strange feeling is tightening in his heart, tendrils of something growing, chest growing heavy with ripeness. He touches the sticky grape juice on her mouth and feels with a perfect thudding shock the same wetness on his own lips.

Belatedly, he realizes he has broken their unspoken rule about contact.

"May I?" he asks, somewhat foolishly, and she ducks her head to hide that small smile, always a trick of the light.

"Yes," she says, so quietly he nearly misses it, and then again, more insistently, in a way that draws all other sound out of the vineyard entirely.

She is a collection of best things: her chin brushing against his as she levers herself on tiptoe to reach his mouth, her hair in his eyes, filtering the world through a cascade of sun-bleached filaments, her hands, so uncertain of what to do that in the end he simply twines his fingers with hers, feeling her pulse beat against his wrists. He has held another's body before for the sake of great forces, crashing together from opposite ends of the universe, and of love so strong and white-hot that bodies were nothing but shaking sheaths to the controlled fury they housed—but this, this minutiae of sensation, is nothing like anything he has ever had before. It seems inconceivable to him that the straightforward girl among the scrolls, with her ever-present monocle and ink-stained fingernails, could look so thoroughly debauched. Hazy halo of red hair, blue eyes like a swirl of glass all smoky with confusion and longing. There are no complications. The scholar with her world of the mind is, ironically, a creature of feeling, and with this in mind he draws her down onto the ground, the loamy earth and the cool violet-colored shade of the vines around them. A sharp, lush scent; the fallen grapes crushed underfoot. He brushes lips to her collarbones as she clings to his shoulders; fits their hips together, and the earth seems to move. Streaks of the same dull gold cross-hatch the sky.

It was always this easy. The simplicity of it stuns him.

On her stomach the five-element seal seethes with stormy chakra at his touch. He places his mouth in the center and traces the ink strokes with his tongue, and she shudders under him, unbound, nuanced, the contours and shadows on her skin more real than any fantasy. Under her hands secrets fall away, the hand through his heart, Madara's furious red eyes, the endless burdens of the village and the demanding dirt under his feet. Under her hands his burdens are borne and so is he, the space between himself and that distant place bridged—carried away on her strength like leaves on the wild, wild wind.

~X~

Nothing could have prepared her for the intimacy of it. She screws her eyes shut when she hears the familiar catch in his voice, not wanting to hear the other name, and he begins to say it; the humming, "M—ma—"

And then he seizes her waist and lifts her, running one worshipful hand down the curve of her shoulder all the way down to her hips, leans to her ear exactly as he did on their wedding day, and sighs Mito.

~X~

The most awkward way to make an entrance into someone's house is to lead their daughter in covered in dirt and bite marks, missing half her hairpieces, and smelling maddeningly of grapes and lovemaking. Mito looks so sticky and flushed that some of her younger sisters actually shriek, and Hashirama feels a small part of him die inside when he passes a hall mirror and spots an assortment of twigs, brambles, and broken vines tangled in his own hair. He casts about wildly for some method of escape. To his horror, Mito's parents are standing at the foot of the stairs, eyeing them both with barely-concealed bemusement.

"How did you like our grapes, Senju-san?" asks Mito's father, perfectly innocent.

Mito's mother shakes her head and says, "We'll postpone dinner until you freshen up, then."

~X~

"Oh my god," groans Tobirama when they arrive at the Konoha border, both wearing the same expression of shell-shocked euphoria. "Look at you two. I'm going to be sick. Get a room, please."

"Well, if you would kindly drive faster," says Hashirama almost shyly, and Tobirama looks so disturbed at his brother's near-innuendo that he actually shuts up for the remainder of the carriage ride back, breaking his silence only occasionally to make theatrical gagging noises.

For the next few months, Hashirama takes the steps two at a time when he comes home, and she becomes an expert at clearing off her desk in a few seconds flat. The first time he lifts her onto the wooden surface, she is so disoriented and half-scandalized that she lets him take her right there over all the scrolls and ink trays and half-done seals, and in the aftermath, when a Senju elder drops by and inquires after the ink on their clothes and the ravaged desk, they both find themselves with absolutely nothing to say. She makes a habit of emptying it rather quickly after that, but she finds no way to salvage the hallway mural, or the lamp in the foyer, or the entire set of plates he knocks over one day after a particularly ill-planned encounter in the kitchen.

All of it is, she finds, absolutely worth it.

~X~

On the fifth day after truce was called Hashirama had lain spent and exhausted in the tent on top of the hill and gasped against the pain in his chest, a bitter and incongruous feeling that swelled like a wave as Madara perched near the tent flap and laced up his hunting boots. He hadn't paused at all in his motions, gathering up his clothing, running a hand through his still-sweaty hair. It was fall then and the air was always cold, so that Madara had had to take an extra cloak.

"Wait," Hashirama had said, for what reason he was never certain; there was nothing to say, it had all taken place in silence and an almost desperate sense of leaving something there like a stamp, so that when Madara had gone out onto the moor again he would retain something of Hashirama, of the village to which he had supposedly pledged his loyalties. Madara had cast him a glance like alms in a beggar's bowl and gone out, squaring his shoulders tightly against the leaves snapping in the wind and the outside light, dull blue, cold as the edge of a blade.

Ultimately, he thinks, the only fool in that scenario was the nineteen-year-old not-yet-Hokage, still waiting there inside the tent, clutching at his torso as if he were about to be sick and not understanding why.

Sometimes in the early mornings he rises to leave for the Hokage tower, and Mito, eyes not yet fully open, says, "Wait."

And because he is no longer nineteen, and because he knows that whatever is outside will always be colder than what is between those covers, he always goes back.

~X~

The part of Mito that knows not to thrill at the sound of his footsteps on the stairs understands very clearly that all they have done is added another dimension to their relationship; it is no different than when they first began to eat silent dinners together after the Valley of the End had left them both irreversibly changed. There had been no slots in the woodwork to hold two people like them, so they had gravitated towards one another, water seeking its own (broken) level. It is no different.

Hashirama still speaks, after all, of the imagined country beyond what he has made. She has never been able to ask in what capacity that country includes her.

Before she has time to contemplate the ramifications of this, however, her husband's fledgling village experiences its first raid.

~X~

One of their best genjutsu squadrons is decimated in reconnaissance alone, and Hashirama closes the border, but not before at least twenty young shinobi have seen fit to set out alone and consequently die alone as well. Furious, he asks his cousin between gritted teeth to control her squads, but Toka, who has always worked as an infiltrator and not a defender, has no idea how to deploy the forces at her command. She relinquishes command to an Uchiha who works underneath her and from there the entire operation is shot to hell; some among the clan still blame him for Madara's defection and fail to understand the obvious issues inherent in allowing Konoha to fall under foreign control.

"Cutting off their nose to spite their face," he sighs, palming his forehead at home. "I don't understand how they manage to operate in day-to-day-functioning."

"Who is perpetuating these raids?" asks Mito.

"That first wave was felled with acid mist, which I believe is a Kirigakure bloodline. It makes no sense. I was invited to their founding; they've always been very friendly with us…"

"The Mizukage sent us a wedding present," agrees Mito.

"Did he really? Well, then, you see how unprecedented this is."

"I would suggest that you travel there to speak with him, in that case," she says.

"I can't leave in wartime!"

"I would suggest," she says again, cool as snow and just as relentless, "that you ascertain the cause of these attacks as soon as possible. Your brother can handle deployment as well as anyone else, as can I. I've been reading your old mission logs."

"You—what? That's really not the same as…at any rate, Mito, the point is morale. It would seriously damage village optimism were I to leave at this juncture."

"How nice for them, to have high morale when they're dead."

"Fine," he capitulates. "I'll go to Kirigakure. But please don't try to…deploy any troops, all right?"

"I won't," she reassures him, looking mildly and misleadingly scandalized.

Before he leaves, she says, "Hashirama," and he stops, because despite everything she rarely ever says his name, not even at night, not even in public meetings, and when she does, she inevitably uses the suffix like a veil of propriety. Her voice sounds oddly unassuming without it. She comes towards him and rises on tiptoe to kiss him, very self-conscious and apparently without purpose. It is such a freakishly ordinary thing for her to do that the action embarasses them both, but he feels it warm him under his chest, spreading like the light of a flare over water.

"I won't be gone for long," he says, and this, too, is farcical in its mundane domesticity, but it is strangely gratifying to say it.

To establish, so firmly, the fact of something to come back to.

She says, "Take as long as you need."

~X~

Mito walks out past the waiting town square and the houses at the village's border and the Hokage Tower, and when she reaches the section of fields that have been left fallow for the fall crops, she spreads out her blanket, sits, and removes a small flask of Uzumaki wine and a red knotted cord from her satchel. She passes the knots through her fingers and takes a few sips of the wine. Eventually both actions have soothed her with their regularity, slowing her breathing and heart rate to the point she needs for clarity.

When she is ready, she places her fingers together in a sensory seal and closes her eyes. She opens them again to the smoky, low-lying vineyard she often finds in her subconscious. In the distance is a cage, its contents obscured by black fog.

The wind brings with it the sound of teeth.

"I knew you would do this eventually," says the kyuubi. "Have you come to bring me human flesh?"

"Your fill of it," she says, slightly sick to her stomach, but still shaking with it, the tremor she can already feel in her veins, every nerve sparkling. Portentious. Laden with the glittering promise of destruction. "Lend me your chakra."

"Your wish is my command," it smirks, and the teeth are suddenly in her flesh, injecting her full of hot bright venom. "Jinchuuriki."

~X~

Halfway across the mountains to Kiri Hashirama receives word of a bijuu attack near Konoha. The old inkeeper who offers him lodging and mulled wine clucks his tongue and makes noises like almost took her head clean off and leveled a couple-a' districts, if you can believe it but Hashirama barely hears any of it until he hears redhead, figures and didn't look like a kunoichi and then he is off, back along the homeward trail with the wind at his heels, doubling up as he runs, fraught with the sensation that it is his limbs rent apart, his heart squeezed in those clawed talons, his eyes scanning that lightless horizon as he screams, screams, screams for his wife to wait.

~X~

In the wake of an experiment gone wrong, there is nothing to do but tally the statistics:

Four out of Konoha's seven districts razed completely to the ground. She had kept the damage away from the market district and the political sector where the ambassadors stayed, but: four out of seven.

Three fields of crops reduced to ash, leaving only one for the new yield.

Forty-seven elite Kirigakure shinobi left with no identification save dental records. So many sets of teeth strewn like pearls over the soot-blackened landscape, and she was no mermaid to gather them; she had gone numb at the macabre sight.

Thirty-five Konoha widows.

Sixty-two brand new names on the memorial, twelve of them children's.

One war stopped in its tracks, as efficiently as a guillotine. As messily.

Kill me, she says to the throbbing red light behind her eyes. Please kill me.

Come, now, croons the kyuubi in return. Don't you want your mate to see what you've done?

~X~

Hashirama is refused entry into the medical tent and then within two hours, suddenly granted permission. The medic-nin casts him a dirty look as he toes off his sandals and enters.

"Your wife's a fast healer," says the man coldly. "You're a lucky man. Hokage-sama."

It's like a slap. He puts his hand to his temple, palpitates it. The flat of his palm shields the white cot and Mito's form from view.

"Please leave us alone," he says, keeping his voice even with nearly superhuman control.

She is upright on the cot. It is evident that the bandages wrapped around most of her limbs became superfluous rather quickly, as parts of them are blackened with soot, but most are still completely pristine. Her hair is tied back in a simple braid.

"Are you well?" he asks.

Her hands are shaking.

"I am sorry," she says, all in a rush, not a tone he's ever heard her use before, "I am—so sorry—"

Hashirama suddenly has the sensation of being pulled one fiber at a time from his skin, his spirit and his bones cleaving down the middle as easily as a child pulls apart a hollow reed. As if from above his own body he watches himself reach into his satchel, retrieve the crumpled piece of paper that bears the death tally, and throw it at her face. He has no control over the action; he is a marionette, invisible strings miles above him wielded by a vast and hideous anger that creeps low at the edges of his vision. The sense of branches fragmenting, fire snapping twigs. He can still smell the poisonous smoke left by the beast's attack. The smell of charred timber ignites him on a level he cannot comprehend.

"I was trying to stop a war," she tries.

"You stopped it," he says numbly. "Well done."

"Please don't—"

"What were you thinking?" he shouts. "You didn't believe I would be able to handle it in a way that didn't involve getting a third of the village killed?"

"It wasn't that!"

"Mito," he says, expelling her name between clenched teeth. "The bijuu are dangerous for a reason. Even he didn't have enough control over it to use it the way you were trying to. And this is simply—I neverfor a moment imagined that I would have to explain this to you, of all people!"

She says, "I trusted that I could wield its chakra with the seal—I built provisions into it for that eventuality, it was—"

"Of course," he rages, "of course you trusted that you could do it. And now my village is paying the price for your arrogance—that's the way of the scholar, isn't it? Trust your charts, trust your scrolls, trust anyone else who can speak the same nonsensical jargon as you can, but when it comes to trusting the leader of the village, who was presumably elected for his judgment in situations like these, you strike out on your own? What is the difference between you and—and him, then? Is there any difference?"

She is angry now. As of the morning he would not have believed it possible. Her anger is so unattractive he knows she can't have let it escape very often, biting her lip, keeping her back ramrod straight as if attempting to preserve her dignity. It's an ugly and uncomfortable sight.

"You sent me to Kiri so you could do this?" he demands.

"No," she manages. "No, I never—I wanted to try diplomacy, and I thought that in the meantime I would—"

"You would what? Try another of your ridiculous experiments and—"

The boundary bends, blurs, breaks.

"If I had never tried any of my ridiculous experiments, you wouldn't be alive," she says coldly.

Too far. It's too far, and now the heat in his throat has crystallized into a hard knot of anger, a flaw in wooden grain, stoppering the words as they batter his insides. He had stood above Madara's body with his hand shaking on his sword and his bones shaking in their own sheaths, skin and blood all ineffectual against the heart that had screamed no with every palpitation, but he had made his choice, traded the man he had honed himself against growing up for rows of wooden houses and the peacetime bickering of women at Konoha's market. Children growing into their youth still remembering how to smile. He had thought then that he could never again make a sacrifice as great in magnitude, but he understands now with a bleak and deadly certainty that the choice did not end with Madara; as Hokage he will continue to make it again and again in all the years to come. As he did then. As he does now.

"I never asked you to follow me to the Valley of the End," he tells Mito, and his voice does not shake. "I beg you to release me from my debt. As now I release you from yours."

"What?"

"Your lapse in judgment has cost this village too dearly. In the morning, I will request that Uzushiogakure send another ambassador to replace you."

She says, "Hashirama—"

He bows to her and walks out.

~X~

She finds it very easy to hate Uzushiogakure with its clean fields and air that smells like life. She wakes up choking on the memory of Konoha and its ashes, hating herself, staring numbly at her own hands with their innocent lines and remembering claws, fire, blood, how utterly and devastatingly she had overestimated her own capacity.

During her second week back, her father asks her if she wants to go over her calculations.

"No," she says. "I have failed as a scholar."

He looks at her for a long moment, then says, "I'm not surprised your husband sent you home."

The hot liquid in her throat is angry and vicious and she wants to spit or scream, but instead she finds herself walking forward, head held high like the queen she was until so recently. Her father says nothing. She pulls a fresh stack of parchment towards her, fixes her monocle in place, and carefully begins to write her report of what exactly happened in Konoha.

During the third week her youngest sister silently presents her with a haphazard ink drawing. It is a stick-figure man with long, dark hair growing a flower out of his hand. She crumples the drawing up and throws it on the floor as he threw the death tally at her face and then she takes it out and smooths out the wrinkles and hides it between the pages of a book and tries not to look at it and think about it and knows with all her being that it is always there anyway, just as he is there, one hundred and two miles to the north, braiding his hair over his shoulder and knotting it with her woven tie before writing the letter that will ask for her replacement.

~X~

People are angry at her, and so they are angry at him. A woman who has lost a son attempts to set fire to the Hokage tower, screaming as she does that his demon wife would have done the same thing, and why should he be spared when her son was not? She laments that he has no demon children she can kill. The men cart her off, but no one defends him. Even Tobirama says nothing, simply steers him away with a viselike grip on his upper arm.

Her papers are still on the desk, her robes in the closet. One day he takes them all out and puts them on the bed. The formal black robes with their Uzushio and Konoha crests have been awkwardly darned—she never knew how to appliqué, and the Senju clan symbol she has attempted to affix next to her Uzumaki one is hopelessly crooked. He takes out all the stitches and redoes them properly simply because the sight upsets him.

The nightmares never come anymore. Every time he hears her voice, shouting "Let him be!" and still he wakes up soaked with sweat, listening to a new name hang there in the darkened room like smoke from a pipe. Like a millstone around his neck, weighting him down, submerging him under the water where there are no longer any lights to guide him home.

A life once saved is a debt that can never be repaid, but she saved something else, and somehow, that debt runs deeper still.

~X~

She writes:

I am sorry.

She doesn't send it.

~X~

He writes:

I am sorry.

He doesn't send it.

~X~

Finally she lays out a fresh swatch of parchment and writes:

Hokage-sama:

Please accept this set of fertilizing seals. They will ensure that all four fields can be utilized for crops without the need to lay one fallow. In a quaternary set the last one is always slightly weaker than the rest; please use it for the southwest field, which always has the best yield.

I understand that they may not be welcome, but Konoha has my best wishes for the reconstruction.

Respectfully,

Senju Mito

She writes the letter three times, each time in shakier and shakier handwriting, and finally she asks her mother to take dictation. Her mother shakes her head and lays a hand on her shoulder, and ultimately Mito grits her teeth and forms each character herself, hesitating not at all over Senju Mito. She analyzes the letter closely for any sort of weakness. She debates whether or not to add yours after respectfully and decides against it. She vacillates between two different scroll cases. She grows frustrated with herself and sends it, watching the courier carry it down between the vineyards with her nerves, it seems, pinched between her fingers, waiting for a sign of release.

~X~

He writes:

The seals have proven helpful. Thank you for your consideration.

He hesitates. He keeps the letter in a drawer for three weeks. Then, one evening in midwinter, he pulls it out and aimlessly continues where he left off:

You will be pleased to know that I have been taking less sugar in my tea and have also fixed your formal robes.

It languishes another week. His house grows more silent, the sound of the wind outside more melancholy.

On the last full day of the year, he adds one more line and sends the letter out at first light.

~X~

When she receives it, she goes out on the vineyard and to the twist of wines-on-the-vine where he touched her for the first time, and as she breathes in the scent of the grapes and the soil and the perfect, painless memory, she takes the letter again in her hands and reads it, joy welling up under her skin like a song she doesn't dare give voice to, but is there nonetheless, a permanent melody, familiar and real.

have also fixed your formal robes, which I am enclosing. Please be sure to wear them upon your return to Konoha in the spring.

Regards,

Senju Hashirama

~X~

He isn't exactly sure how to tell her that in some regards, nothing has changed, so ultimately he says, rather lamely, "You are welcome back to Konoha, Senju Mito."

Across the meeting table, her body is straight as a hoisted flag against the hostility of the other delegates, the clan heads and their minions, their rage held in check only by the fact that he is Hokage and has reminded them: as she gave him a second chance, so he will return the favor. She bows courteously and takes her old seat between the delegates from Kiri and Suna.

After the meeting, they walk home together without looking at one another.

Hashirama rationalizes that asking her to come back was probably what threw them off. Their arrangement was businesslike and should have been broken in an appropriate fashion; he never expected the jagged edges. The loss of Madara had always been like a torn-away limb, something that still throbs with the sea-changes in Konoha's weather, but the loss of Mito was a strange and nagging thing that hadn't been apparent until she had returned. Now he sees it as the absences are filled: the way she nudges his discarded sandals straight when she toes off her slippers next to them, shrugs out of her cloak with that peculiarly efficient motion of hers, absentmindedly picks up a plate he left on his desk in the morning. It seems frivolous to say aloud that he missed these things, but the fact remains that he did.

"I—" they both begin at the same time, alarmingly, and then stop. Her face is slightly pink. He thinks the color of his own can't be far off.

"Go ahead," he says politely.

"I want to tell you that I know…" She trails off, swallows. It's rare to see her so ill at ease, more so because they both know exactly what she wants to say.

"You know what?"

She lowers her eyelashes. On anyone else the gesture would be demure; on her it is an expression of defeat, as serious as the lowering of a flag.

"I am not a heroine anymore," she nearly whispers.

They stop there in the light from the bay window that faces the whole of Konoha, its spires pale afterthoughts in the glass. Pennants caught like smoke in the new buildings, her own face shrouded in its cloud of bright hair. He thinks of her in the first days after the Valley of the End, thrashing in her bedcovers and gasping against the kyuubi's intrusion, bent double over her desk as it tortured her for release, yet never for a moment faltering in her resolve. And Hashirama has lived his life as a series of near misses with heroism; nearly a legend save for the grasp of one man's hand across a conference table, nearly a hero save for the fact that he has never told his wife the one thing that has always been true, from the fight onwards, for what she did for Konoha, for what she did for his own life.

"You're mistaken," he says, a sensation like endless locks slotting into endless tumblers. "You have always been a heroine."

Absolution looks like this: her expression of stunned, sun-bright shock, sounds like this: stammered words to the effect that it hasn't changed, nothing has, feels like this: both of them forgiven, jinchuuriki and a man left behind—two orphans, momentarily given a glimpse of grace.

~X~

Before the summer ends she says, "I would like to request your assistance."

"What can I do for you?"

"I want to train on the fields."

It is a mark of the kind of man Hashirama is that he stammers and looks confused, but doesn't laugh. She waits patiently with her hands folded and considers that she might have made the request in something more businesslike than her set of spring robes, which are a gift from her brother-in-law, embroidered in pale green to suggest new leaves twining around her body. Considering his background, Hashirama usually seems to find this highly inappropriate.

"Why?" he asks finally. "You're more than capable of defending yourself with your seals, I must confess I don't—"

"I believe you know why."

His face shuts like a door. "Absolutely not."

"Playing the domineering husband doesn't suit you."

"Levity doesn't suit you. Please do not force this issue."

"Very well."

"Where are you going?"

"Down by the fallow fields to train."

"Mito—"

"I asked for your assistance," she calls over her shoulder, "not your permission."

So he follows her out to the fallow fields, irritated and trying not to show it, carrying a small pair of fatigues in his satchel for her to wear. She slides out of her robe and, as always, he averts his eyes in an entirely ridiculous fashion.

"All right," he says, somewhat bitterly. "If there's going to be a bijuu attack, at least I'll be here this time."

She ignores this and gestures him over to the edge of the field to take a seat. "Hold your hand out," she instructs. "Palm up."

"What are you doing?"

She draws the character for suppress on the palm and adds nine apostrophic marks to enclose her parameters. "I want to try a ridiculous experiment," she says pointedly.

He glowers at her, inasmuch as Hashirama can glower at anything.

"A character is going to make…it…do something?"

"It's a seal. I'm going to infuse it with chakra."

"If you do that, are you sure you'll have enough chakra left over to—"

"Not my chakra," she says. "Yours."

~X~

Hashirama has been called the best shinobi of his generation, but nothing has prepared him for the sight of it: his wife, skin bubbling, eyes melting to a dark and vicious liquid, her own voice lost in the snarls that emanate from her throat. As she told him it would, fire sears the ground around her. The chakra of the monster dries his eyeballs and the saliva in his mouth; he feels it like a strain of sickness under his veins, the slipstream. Madara had once told him it was like seeing one's own body turned inside out to spot a jinchuuriki. He doesn't remember where the other man had seen one; he had never asked.

At the time it had seemed wholly theoretical.

"Mito," he shouts, and she turns to look at him. Her lips are pressed together as though fire may spew forth from between them at any moment. In his fatigues she looks even smaller than usual. As he watches, a thin tongue of flame uncurls itself from under her chin and burns away the Whirlpool symbol at the sleeve.

She opens her mouth to tell him something, but he doesn't hear it. The fire roaring drowns out everything. In the middle of the cacophany he sees her raise her arm and hold it straight out, palm up.

He thrusts his own out in return and grits his teeth as the seal character goes hot, flush with chakra. He feels his own life force pulse for a moment inside his palm. Then it shoots out into the writhing, roiling mass of fire, there is a moment of intense struggle; lungs squeezing, nerves tingling, holding his bucking body aloft over the sea of chakra that encompasses it—

—and then suddenly, in the midst of the decimated field, there is only Mito, straight and reserved in a skin not her own, looking at her clawed hands with cool golden eyes and saying, "I thought that would work. Thank you for your cooperation."

~X~

She demonstrates, walking through the town square with the kyuubi's chakra wrapped around her like a cloak, her lengthening red hair spread behind her, pennant wafting in the hot wind. Later they will tell her she looked like a terrible queen. She knows there is no triumph in the act, holding the kyuubi under layers of theory and the stilted lines of her own turquoise chakra—they're afraid of her, nothing more. Most of them still hiss profanities under their breath. She has made herself outsider now, a designation that can never be lifted.

But it is a triumph for her, because with Hashirama's chakra heavy over hers like his hand on her waist, the beast is tamed, and she is no cage anymore, but a living weapon.

~X~

It's been eight years to the day since their marriage, and Mito tells him with a frank assessing gaze that she is pregnant. It's not something he ever expected to have, so he drops a bowl and breaks it. She tells him not to step in the shards, he does so anyway and hurts himself, and then, while balancing awkwardly on one leg and attempting to aim at his foot with healing chakra, he says, "So this…you mean…a child, is that correct?" and she gets fed up with it and walks out of the room. He stumbles after her.

"That—that's not what I meant," he tries, although he really has no idea what he meant or what would redeem his statement in any way. "And…how?"

She turns around and stares at him.

"That is absolutely not what I meant," he says quickly. "But it…I simply never thought…"

"Perhaps that is because you spent the first five years of your sexual life dallying with someone who did not possess a uterus," she says without missing a beat.

"It was only four years," he protests, although it's unclear what this establishes. "And that isn't—do you want to sit down? Are you tired? You look tired."

"You are such an oaf, Senju Hashirama," she snaps, and retreats to her desk, where she rolls open a scroll and begins to read it with an expression of furious concentration, although it appears to be upside down. He reasons that she must have skipped the part of childhood that imparted the ability to make creative insults, probably because she was shut up in a library somewhere. The thought of Mito as a very young child is needlessly intriguing, and he spends a few moments somberly contemplating it before he abruptly realizes what his view on the entire situation is.

"I hope she has your hair," he blurts. Through some process he doesn't completely understand, he has decided she is a girl.

"I beg your pardon?"

"Your hair. If she has your hair, that's…that would be ideal."

She eyes him distastefully and he realizes he is grinning like an unhinged person.

"She would walk around," he tells her incoherently. "And we could—name her, as well. It's very exciting, isn't it?"

She puts her head on her desk and mutters something that sounds like oaf.

~X~

Hashirama proves through an awkward and woefully inaccurate bedroom conversation that he has no real understanding of the reproductive system, is bewilderedly understanding when she begins to gag on her breakfasts ("Maybe your body is trying to—make room for it?"), and goes completely to pieces making the announcement in front of the clan heads, stammering and blushing so much that ultimately she is the one who has to stand up and hold forth with, "What my husband means to say is that…"

Walking home one night alone from the marketplace, she anticipates the first piece of thrown fruit and is able to deflect it with her basket when it comes. Before she goes into the house, she redoes her hair and wipes down the sodden linen as best as she can so that her husband doesn't notice. Some of the men in the mail hall who have been kind to her since she was a teenager tell her there's graffiti in the back alleys—children with fangs and horns, less like foxes and more like devils.

She wants to go home, and then one morning Hashirama makes their wooden bed burst into full flowers the color of her eyes, and she knows she can't, knows she won't—not as long as he's leaning over her, covering the seal with his large tanned hand and whispering something honey-sweet about little girls with red, red hair.

~X~

These days they're not the Hokage and his jinchuuriki, they're just crazy people, scandalizing shopkeepers with Mito's all-hours cravings for ramen ("She said she doesn't want it fresh!"), puzzling over the lists of instructions she picks up in medical scrolls ("What does this mean, lactation—oh—oh dear, does that really…happen?"), and striking the days off the wooden advent calendar he sets up in their study.

These days he thinks about the little girl and Mito's cool gaze at their wedding, and he wants to say to that young woman kneeling before the ceremonial fire: you're happy now, aren't you? Aren't you?

The habit of guilt is a difficult one to leave behind. Sometimes it never leaves, simply changes focus; the dark-haired man in his memory is no longer as present as he once was, but her face in those early years is thrust into prominence. He thinks he will spend the rest of his life atoning in some fashion for some sin or another, some crime he justified with the mathematics of morality and village-saving, world-making, heroism.

Still, when he hears her call for help reaching something, her belly already making her ungainly, he thinks he will also spend the rest of his life being rewarded for something he never quite managed to deserve.

~X~

Her father writes: Be cautious, and keep your husband close.

The kyuubi says: Human flesh.

The baby kicks at the seal as if she can fight her way out, like a good kunoichi.

Like a heroine.

~X~

It happens on a summer night. There is a crash of broken crockery in the kitchen, where he broke a dish at her discovery nine months ago, and she is swaying white-faced and steady-eyed as her robes grow dark with liquid.

"My god," says Hashirama. "All right. All right, I'll call a medic-nin—"

"No!" she screams suddenly. "Stay!"

And as she crumples to the floor, he manages to catch her, and sees the red chakra leaking in great poisonous swathes from under her nails and her eyelids and her lips.

"Don't leave," she gasps, "you cannot leave, do you understand?"

"I am not leaving," he says, numb with terror. The red chakra curls in on itself, searing his arms and the fabric of her robe. She is covered with a sheen of sweat within moments. She screws her eyes tight, and when they open again, they are bright gold.

Assisting with childbirth? says the kyuubi's voice from everywhere and nowhere. What a kind husband. Are you going to let me kill her now, or after the babe is born?

How life, at every turn, gives him opportunities to return her favor—but then he realizes that as they have grown up, so they have grown together, and now he acts out of no sense of debt but his own free will; the answer chosen for him from the moment he touched her cheek on those vineyards, perhaps even longer ago, when she exorcised his dead friend's ghosts with her cups of tasteless tea and talk of a country beyond the world.

"Perhaps you misunderstood me," says Hashirama, voice set. "She is my wife, and I am not leaving."

~X~

A thousand tortures. Light spangling behind her eyes, retinas gouged out, the lack of sensory escape inhibiting her until she has gone numb with pain, wants to bite off her tongue, wants to die, for one terrible moment wants to release the kyuubi and give up on the world altogether, but she clings to his rope of sea-blue chakra like a lifeline, holding holding holding—

—and then with a sound like an implosion she is simultaneously emptied and filled; the kyuubi howls within her body again, and the baby girl, outside it.

~X~

"There is not a man in the five countries who could do what you did," she tells him.

He takes a moment's pleasure in the unusually effusive praise before his eyes roll backwards in his head and he promptly and unceremoniously faints.

~X~

In terms of days, their daughter spits milk up onto his armor on the third, learns how to keep them up all night on the seventh, develops her startling red hair by the twenty-first, and smiles beatifically like a perfect little Senju on the thirtieth. In terms of months, she walks at eleven, says kaachan by the twelfth, and tips herself over in a clumsy bow to a guest by the fifteenth. In terms of years, she makes handprints on Mito's scrolls at four, produces a hideously deformed but nonetheless endearing sunflower plant by seven, and enters the fledgling Academy under her uncle's watchful eye at nine.

In terms of moments, she asks why other children don't play with her and develops a fascination with Uzushiogakure storybooks that manages to ease the slight. In terms of hours, it takes Mito two to take her behind a locked door and explain to her about the seal on her stomach and the mistake she had made on the day of that long-ago Kiri attack, when Hashirama had left and she had thought herself immortal—and it takes Hashirama three more to console her, hand on her back, sneaking worried glances at Mito as he explains that her parents have it under control, and that it won't eat her or anyone else. In terms of nights, they spend more than a few up later than they should be, Hashirama helping her climb the statues at the Valley of the End while Mito watches from behind the waterfall, just as she had done so many years ago, and one particularly strange evening, bemusedly helping her grow a bush with golden leaves to adorn Uchiha Madara's memorial.

In terms of lives, they live theirs again, watching her stumble and step and grow into a sedate young woman who wears her hair long and straight and crinkles her eyes like her father's when she laughs, and Mito sometimes closes her eyes, thinks about herself unmarked and unblemished, prays that Konoha will forgive the girl for the mistakes she has yet to make, as they still have not managed to forgive her for hers.

~X~

When she turns eighteen, the golden-haired giant of a young man who wishes to marry her says goodbye to his infuriated family and laughs as he watches her grow them a house of honey-colored wood. He says it's all in reverse and he feels a little emasculated, and Hashirama tells him it runs in the family and with time, he will come to find it exceedingly attractive. The boy bows and tells him rakishly that he already does.

Hashirama and Mito walk along the edge of the Nakano river and he asks her if she remembers how in their youth there were no piers and paths, simply a stretch of unbroken water and the red dirt at its edges. She says she does. The years have done nothing but thin her out, like a watercolor laid into a shallow tray of liquid; the sky behind her sometimes seems to bleed through her skin, wash it paler and almost translucent, so that he thinks he can see through her into the world beyond. All of the months have slipped by with a frequency that disorients him.

In the speed of time flying he has come to understand, then, that happiness is something to be built as carefully as a house with four walls. In his youth, lying in a cold tent with a colder man, he had caught a glimpse of it like something stumbled upon—a sanctuary in the woods, to hide for a while and wait for the world to spin—but in his second life he had made it with her, its crossbeams and timbers hewn and gilded with their own sweat. They had propped up their life together on its foundations until it stood radiant like a pearl, and then they had stood in the shadow of its roof and marveled at the perfect and ethereal architecture of it, the strange way in which like the finest wood, the body healed its wounds, and the broken again made itself smooth and whole.

On the Nakano river that is no longer the river of their youth he tells her he loves her. They go home and make their dinner silently; he lays a fire for her in her study before settling down to clean his equipment; she settles a shawl around his shoulders and tucks a strand of hair behind his ear, and then she sits down beside him on the floor and leans her head on his shoulder.

It took them so long; Hokage and jinchuuriki, hero and heroine, boy and girl, but now, as simply a man and a woman, they are where they always should have been.

~X~

The morning in autumn when she sees him off to Kumo for the negotiations is one of the most beautiful she has ever seen. As they stand in the doorway she remembers the scent of vineyards, crushed grapes under her skin, and although they are both past those mad wine-sweet days she thinks of them anyway, as she tucks extra provisions into his traveling cloak and brushes a hand over the grey hairs at the top of his head.

"Tell Kumo's jinchuuriki that she must write to me if she has any troubles," she tells him. "Bring her back with you, perhaps. I have been working on some methods of chakra control that might—"

He chuckles. "You saw her last a year ago, when we handled the hachibi sealing, and she was doing very well. Shall I bring back anything from the Lightning Country?"

"Tsunade might like something sweet."

"And you?"

"I don't need anything," she says.

He laughs. "You never have."

"That isn't quite true."

He kisses her slow and lingering before he leaves. She has grown slower and slightly stooping, bones bending to a new rhythm, but she still feels twenty-four and lithe-bodied in his arms. He startles and exclaims, "I nearly forgot—I had this made a long time ago."

It's a long aquamarine jewel on a black cord, and as she touches it she feels it pulsing with his warm chakra. She guesses he must have been wearing it for years to infuse it with this kind of intensity.

"In case you need to use the kyuubi while I'm away," he says.

"I don't believe—"

"There have been rumors of war," he tells her. "I'm sure it's not serious, but I would prefer to know that you have what you need."

"Thank you."

"Of course."

The things to say when someone leaves are never grand or world-shaking; stay warm, eat well, write when you set off again, but she can think of nothing else. He walks along the road leading away from their gravel path, his footsteps like rain, and he waves at her when he reaches the road to town, where his brother and assorted escorts are already waiting. His face looks the way it does on the mountain, ageless, beautiful in its stone-worn sun-dappled familiarity, and after the red glint of his armor has receded she is still standing there, thinking that he is an old man and a weakening legend but when she looks at him, after so many years, it still feels like spring.

~X~

The rumors of war, as it turns out, are serious, and Hashirama is able to pen the single letter to Konoha appointing Tobirama as Nidaime before the numbness spreading from the wound in his chest no longer allows him to grip a brush.

In his thoughts, Mito, a slender and disapproving teenager, says, "Perhaps there is a country there already—"

He smiles at the phantom, and he thinks that she was probably right.

~X~

Her brother-in-law's first act as Nidaime is to declare the death penalty for anyone who harasses the Shodaime's widow.

"And if you don't," he snaps at the council meeting, "I give Mito-sama official sanction to go fucking four-tails and rip your goddamn intestines out. Hate the jinchuuriki all you want, bigoted bastards that you are, but lay a finger on my brother's wife and I am going to strip you of your shinobi credentials so hard it's going to sting for years."

A letter comes from Uzushiogakure asking if she wishes to return to her family's house.

Mito stands at the forefront of a sea of faces, her own blank as the moon, and the blue-green necklace at her throat anchors her to the ground as she says, the way her husband did, "This is my home, and I am not leaving."

~X~

She sells the house because there is simply no way to live in it, every floorboard his, the posts above their bed, the desk he made for her, seating her in the middle as its surface spread around her like melting butter. She moves into a wing of the Senju compound, and when she wakes up to the sight of leaves rustling in the orchards outside, she turns over, shutting her eyes, pretending he wasn't the one who grew them.

~X~

Years, of course, like falling water

Tsunade's chuunin exam. Mito watches her carefully and with concealed approval, and when her granddaughter splits the ground, she finds herself nodding as the girl looks up into the stands, cups hands around her mouth, and yells, "Hey, obaa-chan! How's that for chakra control, huh?"

Tobirama passes his position on to Sarutobi Hiruzen, who comes to tea with her on the day of his appointment and listens carefully as she lays out her concerns with the social treatment of jinchuuriki. He smiles in the strangely reassuring way he has and confides in her that his first teacher told her the same thing, and she doesn't let her shoulders shake until he leaves.

One winter she goes six-tails in an attack, holding fast to Hashirama's chakra in the necklace, and when she comes to there are worried faces all around her, her granddaughter siphoning healing chakra into her useless shaking limbs. A council meeting is convened. A decision is made.

In January of her last year in Konoha she signs away the burden that has consumed most of her life, and courteously asks if she may be allowed to keep the necklace.

~X~

After Uzumaki Kushina leaves, wiping her tears and calling, "Thanks, Mito-sama!" and "See you tomorrow!" she sits there for a long time, looking at her reflection in the mirror. Then she rises and pulls a traveling cloak from the closet.

She leaves a note and a last set of instructions for the new little jinchuuriki, don't be a picky eater, make close friends, wash every day, do not attempt to control it by yourself. She bows to the Senju retainers who were never kind to her and bows deeper to the ones who were, and she watches her brother-in-law pace inside his chamber neurotically rehearsing a speech for the next day, his hat and robes dyed blue since neither of them could stand to look at the red ones worn by someone else. She doesn't say goodbye, but she lays the note leaving him Hashirama's house and all the money she has left behind at his door.

She walks down the Nakano with its piers and warning signs for careless children, past the Uchiha compound with its bright fans and sullen inhabitants, past the market district she remembers best as a sketch on their bedside table, past the harbor and past the mountain that still bears his face. She walks past men and women and children and lovers and wives and husbands and when she is at the border she turns to look at Konoha and thanks it in an inchoate way; she did not find friendship or freedom there, but she found life and she found love.

She walks until she doesn't know the way, and then she says, out loud, "Take me to where you are."

And in a matter of days, she sees the lines of her husband's hands, a young man waiting at the gateway of an undiscovered country, and the jinchuuriki steps out of her cage and into the place beyond.


end