A/N: It's not that I don't think Madara is an asshole, it's just that. Er. After a certain threshhold of pathetic, things kind of circle back around to depressing again.

Also the more I think about it the more likely it is that this whole ill-fated Hashirama affair was one-sided on both Mito and Madara's parts, and as is well-known I never pass up the opportunity for that kind of unnecessary drama.

Enjoy~


I.

You follow him into the house. Firelight engenders binary aesthetics; the outside looks nearly forbidding in its brightness while the rooms inside are still saturated with a muggy darkness the consistency of smoke. It's all preposterous. Darkness does not have a consistency, and neither does urgency. Neither does fear.

Still: smoke. Something incalculable that sears, a formless weight stoppering the lungs and halting the body in its forward movement; this is an exacting enough description, if inaccurate. It will do for now.

You say: "If you would join the celebration for but a moment—" and he does not react. You realize you half-expected him to go through the motions of rage like an ordinary person but instead he simply glides through the rooms touching things quickly and perfunctorily like a thousand small benedictions.

This comparison too is problematic. Your mind has done the unthinkable and frozen, snagged on things that make no sense.

He says: "All he lacks for tonight is a picturesque woman. You should oblige him and return to the celebration."

He has never acknowledged who he speaks of with you and you have never required it. Crossing the floorboards, he takes a cloak from the furthest hook and sweeps it about himself in the highlander style with the tie to the side allowing access to his buckler. His motions are rapid, shadow-flickering and unbroken indistinguishable from the firelight, which makes him and his preparations no more than shadow puppetry, mirthless echoes of the entertainment outside.

"A rare compliment from you, Uchiha-dono, but under the circumstances I cannot accept it. Please do not dishonor him by leaving the festival this way."

He smiles, briefly flaring and dangerous like a lit match. "You should become accustomed to compliments. They have named him as Hokage and you are to be a great lady, now. A queen in the wilderness. This was what you desired, yes?"

He is the first to give voice to the unspoken wish. Your mouth freezes on the retort; his words have too much truth to them. This is something you have allowed yourself to imagine in the private spaces between the turn of the page or the brief respite as you grind your ink (every ounce of it imbued with the same ceremonial prayers for the now-Hokage's health, his name breathed into blue-black bruise-colored liquid with rosary regularity). It is a foolish wish. Unreasonable. Your cheeks flood with color nonetheless.

"That is irrelevant," you say, and close your eyes against the longing which startles up like the sea inside you.

Outside there is a colossal boom and a louder cheer; the fireworks have begun. Madara pauses to peer from a window at the night sky. For a brief moment his face is illumined by a watery play of stained-glass colors, viridian, carmine, aquamarine; colors that have no equivalents in real life. The expression on his features is one of aghast, unwilling wonderment, raw and alien enough that you take a step back. It does not seem right that you should witness this, not on that face. Not on that face which has never held anything but anger and vicious mirth; it is like witnessing the crumbling of a bridge, of architectures older than time itself.

"Senju-sama," he says absently, not looking at you. "You will remember that I was the first to name you so."

It is not a request. Before you can say anything he has finished with the cloak and swept up the kusarigama from its post laid across the incense altar. His footsteps halt before his brother's portrait, the sole indication that an inimitable soul inhabits these twenty square feet of floorboards. The whistling rockets of fireworks keen again in the distance and this time you realize how wrong you were: this is not wonderment but grief, so terrible and so pure in its austerity that suddenly Madara's dark form seems like a light too concentrated to bear. He has touched everything in that house as though it does not matter, given not a thought to the ceramic teapot and new forged brazier that would have been such luxuries not a year ago, but here his feet have taken him and here he stops, sickened. Your heart breaks with it, the bewildered anger in his too-controlled limbs.

His hand comes up. Then his palm convulses and the portrait has been laid down like a trapdoor closing. A final clean note, the wooden frame's shadow over the skeletons of years.

"He has forgotten his dead," he says, and his face is again lit by festive light, "but I will not do the same."

And then he is out in the streets, touching his doorjamb, the posts of his house, all things Hashirama made and things you both know you could travel the five countries and never find again. The house like a bead on a necklace that fits so neatly into the village, and Madara stands before its posts briefly as if before an opponent, a straight-backed soldier with a cold, incandescent rage already visible in the way his fingers clench on the buckler. He stands there and the world slows to a crawl around you and around that frigid grief that he embodies, six feet of slender gathered darkness in the brightness of Hashirama's joyous village. You step forward again and then he is abruptly before you, touching your cheek as impersonally as he touched his possessions. The blood seems to freeze in your veins.

"This is unnecessary," you find yourself saying again, useless, ever the diplomat even now long past that role, "Uchiha-dono—" you put your hand out to seize his cloak and he catches it by the wrist and diverts it away like an insect. In the same motion he spreads his palm up gesturing to the sky all alight with multicolored flowers. A flame dragon twines through the stars and a shower of green sparkling leaves in commemoration, Hashirama's insignia more than the double scythe of the Senju ever was. Your faces are both upturned to it, paying homage to the man who has caused the night sky to be spangled with this testament to his life. Madara says, "The Uchiha made those, and light them tonight in obeisance."

"Foolishness. It is nothing more than—"

"Call it what you will with your scholar's nearsightedness. It is obeisance. Perhaps it was inevitable, in which case this was, as well."

"This is a new world!" Our new world, you do not say, what you worked for and what you thought he had as well. "The old notions of obeisance no longer hold sway here." He laughs at you with his slashed cruel mouth.

"A new world," he repeats, nearly but not quite mocking. "Then you should return to the celebration, Uzumaki-san, and witness its inception."

And you will, you know this already; your loyalties were determined before there was a Konoha, before there was anything but a dark-haired and gentle emissary to your father's house in a far-away sea country. You will return to the fireside and feel a soft warmth when the women's eyes flit from you to Hashirama, imagine the heat from bonfires blurring the boundary between your life as his bookkeeping retainer and your life as something you will not dare to want fully until your wedding is finalized, seven months and two days in the future. You will go, and so you will not see Madara slip out wraithlike into the night, into the dark forests of the Fire Country unfurling before him like a great and gathering storm. Not running towards something but away from it. Until you hear of it from the younger Senju's eagles you will not fully believe that it has happened.

What you will see before you go is a dark point of forward motion, body like a piston moving straight and cometlike away from you—but his face, that yearning young and yearning face turned up towards the fireworks, lit blue and green and red, red as longing, red as fire, red as love. Until the moment he passes out of sight, Uchiha Madara remains a Konoha citizen. Momentarily transfixed for what he too once believed would save them all; it will come to you then, unbidden, that it was in that moment and that moment alone that his path could have been diverted. That at that point—only a lonely boy running from what he felt had forsaken him—you or anyone could have reached out a hand, forgotten the clamor of your sensibilities, and drawn him back.

He has not forgotten, you long to say, but when you enter the bright circle of the firelight Hashirama calls to you with his face all flushed with riotous happiness as if there were never a war at all, as if one night of celebration balances equally with a lifetime of mourning, and you go towards him drawn as if swung into the path of a sun and know it to be a lie.

The fireworks clash above you, flooding Konoha's alleys with apocalyptic light.


II.

You had followed him into the house. There was an armful of linen in your hands; in those days men had come to the front of your camp with their standards printed on white to mark truce. The Nara, Akimichi, and Yamanaka retainers had twined their printed shadow, shield, and flower together in a twisted cloth braid which they had laid at Hashirama's feet; bound together the bundle was about the size and thickness of a dead body swathed in the customary white. Some clans brought only handkerchiefs screened with crests but most had war flags the length of a man's futon. You yourself had rode in on the fifteenth day, exhausted but flying the Uzumaki spiral from a quarterstaff twice your height.

There was a room set aside for these accoutrements and you liked to spread them on the floor for the sunlight and for Hashirama's approval which was about as impersonally illuminating. He would walk through them with his head at a leonine tilt, as proudly and gravely as though the spread banners were his birthright, while you watched from the doorway trembling with the enormity of what he had accomplished. Once Madara kicked one of the banners back over and narrowed his eyes when Hashirama adjusted it again. Madara was in the habit of making small motions like these but never stepped directly on any of the banners, a basic acknowledgment and one that warmed you to his presence then, before you knew anything of his nature.

Hashirama had picked up bits of history like burrs; probably having received them recently, kneeling on the estate's grounds with strange men and listening patiently to war stories that had not a tenth of the grandeur of his own. "Did you know," began his every statement, and the things not known were endless. The Nara's banner was the longest to cast a greater shadow on battlegrounds. The Uchiha dyed their standards with the blood and charcoal of their fallen, the act of calligraphy an oath of remembrance (vengeance, Madara corrected, and Hashirama ignored it). The Sarutobi flew no banners at all but left their crouching monkey carved in brisk strokes over the doorjambs of the noble houses they infiltrated. In fact most of these stories had already been known to Madara, and to you, but both of you had listened silently nonetheless. What you remembers of those times is tea steam that rose in lazy spirals like a ladder to the heavens and the pop of the brazier, Hashirama kneeling in the banner room long after you took your leave. Madara was often there until late night. You remember his eyes fixed on Hashirama's reverential shaking hands. Then the expression had been easy to contextualize in its singleminded focus; surrounded by the draped magnificences of an impossible ambition Madara had been watching something greater, more unattainable still; this was how he had been trained, deadly gaze immediately seeking whatever it was he could not defeat. One night you had paused outside, watching Madara tend the fire in the room's brazier, and you had nearly been ill at the expression you saw mirrored in your own the terrible tenderness. His hands cupped above the brazier as if whispering a secret harnessing his clan technique to warm his old enemy's room.

When Madara returned to his seat you saw Hashirama lay a hand on the other man's shoulder smiling as if not sure whether he should, a smile that had grown when Madara fixed him with the unreliable knife-edge grimace that passed for mirth with him. The two of them had returned simultaneously to their tasks. In battle you imagined they had communicated without words like this, attuned always to strength and joy as in wartime they had been attuned to weakness and pain.

Hashirama was a skilled leader and rationed out his kindnesses as he rationed out food and tracts of land to the jostling clans. When he passed you in the hallways of the Senju house his gaze was courteous and as surprisedly pleased as it was when he watched Madara, but less personal; you were never as great a liability and your dependability afforded you less importance. He gave you what he gave anyone nothing more and nothing less. Sealers visualized ideals in their line of work and the man they called the champion of justice had appeared in your eyes like the embodiment of that very concept; your feelings were not the stuff of tragedy but inevitability. A scholar's passion for the untainted virtue. You fell in love with him for it before you learned that it was not something to love.

It was Madara, a child of the moors, to whom this sort of justice was unfathomable, and so it was Madara who had given expression to the disbelieving wonder you had felt in those days. In the early mornings you would pass him picking his way ineptly through the gathered banners, the symbols of an entire country's capitulation. Dew beaded his sandals kicked off at the door and the morning had a fuzzy sharp taste like a fruit that had not ripened, a lazy promising taste. Everything was resonant some primordial note inherent to the music of the spheres that had been plucked gently in your very nerves. In that pale predawn light Madara had knelt like a man at an altar in front of the sea of white and laid his palms flat on the linen. A gesture of supplication and one made awkwardly; his movements when not fighting were ungainly as if they had stopped developing with adolescence.

You had known then that Hashirama had driven you both to your knees, unknowing and unaware that it was his peace that had dealt the final blow. What it had taken for someone like Madara to accept that blow was colossal but in the aftermath of that unthinkable sacrifice Madara looked only like this: grey-eyed, gauche, cautious. Safe, and unaccustomed to that safety.

A great, somber compassion had welled up in your heart then, catching the dewy breeze of the early morning and billowing out like full sailcloth. There he was, like the rest of you all filled with a new wind. In those days you were all newly unfettered. Unmoored. Ships that had battered against one another in shortsighted battle, suddenly released to wander over an endless and sparkling sea.


III.

You follow him into the forest. On an ordinary day he would notice you; sealers are for the most part indoor-bound and you have never been an adept tracker, but Madara is ill and not in complete possession of his senses. Still when it is your turn to scout you are careful and stay at a suitable distance from him, nearing him only once to ink a character into the dirt that will be picked up on his sandal sole as he goes.

After the sixth mile on the tenth day he falls to his knees vomiting and then crawls his way to the Water border mumbling and shaking wildly on skeletal limbs. He begins raving near then circling trees as if following a pilgrimage trail before skulking off lopsided, limping and hungry. Too inflamed and swollen with rage to crawl back to the village. He cuts a pathetic figure.

You observe this silently for a few moments more before skirting the rest of the forest and making for Konoha proper with your cloak dripping rain and the evergreen scent of the Fire country glades.

Hashirama receives you, calls for assistance in drying your clothes, and offers you your choice of soup or tea. He is adept at ensuring others' comfort. The steam rises obscuring his face from view but you can visualize the features clearly in your minds' eye; you do not need sight to see this man. The word Hokage was chosen for its implications of subordination even in authority, but Hashirama fashions selflessness into an act of such implacability that it acquires its own power. Stone-carved virtue like the map of his face on the mountain. The sculptors had had an easy task; his features, so malleable with their smile lines in truce time, are still friendly but now hard enough to dash yourself against.

You sip your tea and hold the taste of jasmine under your tongue. The tea has been sugared and stirred in front of you and the act of drinking it somehow makes him seem more real, accessible in a way he is not. His hands, his eyes. His energy trained upon your comfort, as close to personal regard as he will ever come. In any incarnation you are only another body to be clothed and fed and cared for and spoon-fed your due of justice, but for the moment, warmed like summer grass by his presence, it is enough.

"I see," he says after you have made your report. "So he has not yet crossed the border."

"Not yet, Hokage-sama."

He holds his teacup and rubs a finger on the rim. The finger makes three slow revolutions before he sets the cup down meticulously on the small coaster mat and folds his hands inside his sleeves.

You wait for a command but receive none. Finally you say, "Hokage-sama. If you wish it, I—"

"I do not."

"I beg your pardon?"

"I would prefer that you continue with your work here in the village, Uzumaki-san. There is no need to let this situation affect the village's functioning."

Madara's sunken eyes, the weight of his grief bowing his shoulders even as the fireworks lit the cloth covering them a cheery crimson. The hesitant inevitable movement of his fingers turning Izuna's portrait downwards as if unable to make his brother bear witness to his new life. You wince without understanding why and Hashirama eyes you sedately but firmly, as is his habit.

"Is there something unclear about this, Uzumaki-san?"

"Forgive my intrusion," you say, "but will you be going in my stead?"

"As I have said," he says, "it is not my intention to assign this occurrence more importance than it possesses. If he wishes to return, he is free to do so at any time."

There is silence filling the space between you like water rushing into a gunshot hull, heavy and foreboding with the promise of submersion. You pick up your tea and the vessel rattles so heavily in your hands that some of the liquid spills and scalds you. Hashirama takes your hand in his and seals his mouth over the small injury methodically, as if placing down a wax crest.

It startles you worse than the tea. You want to dart backwards but instead you clench your legs together under your robes and force yourself to emulate his collected demeanor. His tongue traces the inside of your wrist, flickers against the pulse and if you insulate yourself against his impersonal fingers and his eyes wide open and businesslike it feels almost like intimacy, nearly. Not quite. Still enough.

You are ravaged with tenderness, set aflame with it. By the time he is finished you are halfway to tears.

He pats the injury once afterwards with a courteous apology and returns to his tea completely unaffected. Gods and demons are alike in this, their detachment from ordinary men. What is everything to you is very little to him, but this is another way in which his justice manifests itself; he cannot be content with what the mundane world offers him; he is a legendary man and dreams of legendary joys. You hold your wrist close to your chest as if cradling something dead and say, "Hokage-sama."

"Yes?"

The white of Madara's neck the same as the white flags of surrender embossed with clan crests a tangle of pride and subjugation all carpeting Hashirama's floorboards, the way in which Madara had watched him cautiously trusting that he would be able to learn the way to move through them by emulating whatever Hashirama had done that enabled him to do so. Now the useless broken pilgrim fleeing the Fire Country, spurred by rage, ignorant and foolish but also alone.

"…Excuse my forwardness."

"You have yet to display any. Please speak freely."

That white and breakable neck. "I do not believe he is entirely mentally stable at this juncture. To alienate him right now would be to confirm his worst suspicions. The accomplishment that it was for him to trust you—he was raised so harshly, it must have seemed like—"

Hashirama's eyes slide half-shut as he sips his tea. The shape of his mouth is very kind.

He says, "Uchiha Madara is still young."

"I beg your pardon?"

He breathes the tea steam in with his chest inflating like a bellows. These are the things that he loves: tea, evenly-woven mats. Hair that lies straight. Rules that lie straighter.

"Anger," he says, "whatever its drawbacks, keeps one eternally young. It does not matter how many years pass. Every sadness will compound his misery, and every happiness will inflame it, reminding him of what he should have had. You and I will grow old, but he will remain at seventeen winters, forever setting flame to his brother's funeral pyre."

"Hokage-sama?"

He sets the teacup down and it takes you a sudden shocking moment before you realize he intends for you to fill it again, as if with a very old friend. Your sleeves slip into the teacup as you hurry to pour and he pretends not to notice. Pins at your cuffs click against the china making a sound indistinguishable from ornamental beads. Outside the light is shifting the alien gradients of late evening, sifting skeins of soft luminescence peachlike and indistinct; you have passed your allotted time in the Hokage's receiving room. The tea hisses as he fills your own cup in return.

You think: probably love is something like this, an endless reciprocal filling and refilling of empty containers shells that hold nothing but blankness. The liquid warms you as the thought does not.

Hashirama says, "I envy him that youth."

"He is not so much younger than you, Hokage-sama."

"But he can keep his anger, Uzumaki-san, for as long as he desires, and in doing so retain the irresponsibility of his youth. A fortune in peacetime."

"From my position it appears that you are the one smiled upon by fortune, Hokage-sama." The bounds have almost certainly been trespassed this time and your mouth tightens, but Hashirama merely tilts his teacup in acknowledgment. Not acknowledgment—command. You drink at the same time he does.

"For the name of Hokage?"

"For the fact that you have more than anger to sustain you."

He looks at you for a moment in surprise and then laughs, a beautiful human sound and one that makes it clear why others would follow the way of such a hard man. "Of course," he says. "The sealing scholars are the greatest of bystanders, with eyes better than any bloodline clans. You uphold your enclave's reputation, so preoccupied with anomalies that do not fit."

"I pray I will be of more use than a bystander someday, Hokage-sama."

"I will add my own prayers that that eventuality never comes to pass, Uzumaki-san. Particularly as you have now begun to concern yourself with hopeless cases."

"Forgive me, Hokage-sama, but it seemed almost—cruel. To let him go, knowing what he is. It was simply something that concerned me."

"As it would have me, at one point. Yet he forfeited his right to that concern the moment he broke the boundary of the village. You are here as an emissary with understanding that you would forfeit the right to wear this—" a touch at the shoulder of her robes, where she wears the spiral, his fingers flex unthinkingly the same motion for assessing a side of meat— "if you were to betray your obligations. It is not so different. I can trust a kunoichi of your stature to sympathize with the constraints of my position. Is that trust misplaced?"

This is your future; this is the embodiment of justice. How could he be mistaken? Sooner ask the sun if it were mistaken in choosing what to warm with its light, if it were responsible for the shadows that arose in the landscapes it touched. Sooner ask if it regretted searing away the flesh of those who came too close as if it had any choice in the matter. This is how you must all live now. It is a new world. The firebrands of the Uchiha will go forth with dignity and so will the sealers of the Uzumaki.

Something inside you cries Do not let him go like this, do not—

You bow, exposing the back of your neck. Your spine bends down, Madara's fingers flex on the funeral portrait turning it away. Uchiha Izuna's stationary smiling face as his eyes face only dark wood.

"It is not misplaced, Hokage-sama," you say, and he smiles, having apportioned you your allowance of his time for the day, and turns away, always fair, to the next matter that demands his attention. Virtue was the act of balance, ultimately, whether time or people or places; the assurance that one person could never mean enough to tip the scales in his favor against the rest of the world. That was what it was.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

The tea sloshes under your sternum a nauseous seasick thing. Distantly you identify the sensation as revulsion. You place fingertips at the the mat, touch your forehead to the very edge of Hashirama's robes, and take your leave.


IV.

You had followed him into the forest. He had saved the last tithe of land for the Uchiha and his face as he led Madara through the trees was almost boyish in its brightness, unusual for him. You had thought then that had the world been kinder you might have met Hashirama as a teenager, fresher, newer, crisp with optimism like the fall apples he grows in his orchards. They were both childish then wearing festival clothes brought in a caravan, a gift from the daimyo, and for the first time they had been able to dress like civilians and enjoyed it. The clothes suited Hashirama and looked terrible on Madara; he held himself too straight, like the line of light that swam into vision looking directly at the sun; the silk and layered robes were frivolous against the austerity of his skin. It was like clothing a blade.

"—long past flare distance, should have known you would sequester us away like—"

"—but you must see it, Uchiha-dono—"

You had been silent. You were as a wraith in these conversations, simply a scholar and nothing more, documenting what needed to be documented and inking life into dead lands, fertility seals to bolster Hashirama's mokuton growing shoots of rice in perfect formation. Then they picked their way through wetland marsh in the forest and you followed, lifting the edges of your own robes clean as the men had forgotten to do. You went further into the forest and then suddenly the sun leveled you with its brightness, a sparkling madness from nowhere, and you funneled chakra to your soles as without warning the ground opened up. In the loss of balance you grasped at Madara's shoulder and he steadied you with one hand; it was a gamble; he could have just as soon swung you forward into the river. In those days he was like that, unpredictable as weather and about as unavoidable. Delivering his kindnesses so viciously they were cruelties in truth.

Before you lay the most tranquil river you had ever seen. Hashirama stood with his arm outstretched palm up as if this, too, was something he had conjured into being. On the far shore herons walked lifting their legs clear as you had done; reeds skirted the shore and clear tidal pools beaded sand like pearls. The meeting of the sky and water was clear as glass.

"You remember the Nakano River," Hashirama called, "this was what I had in mind for your clan holdings." Now the waterside wind was higher; Madara with his sensitivity to heat was already shivering but did not take his eyes from the river.

Then he reached down and prised your fingers from his arm, methodically as if removing an insect. He walked forward.

For long moments he stood there; the water of the river did not break under his light touch as it did under yours and Hashirama's. Sheathed in silver light he stood, the blade poised in its last flash before finding home in its scabbard, and you—everything in your life, what had it been before what he had done, this boy made for nothing but destruction now finding such grave joy in the fact of a riverbank?

He knelt and placed his palms flat on the water, the same as he had done for the banners. It was not a gesture Hashirama had seen and he ignored it, now gesturing away towards the farther shore. "—private docking, and look, we shall—"

A dock was growing now, spreading like a pat of butter. Golden wood curving from the water like bones, elegant and fine, finished with wood the color of honey, and Madara's eyes fixed on the spreading dock did not blink. Hashirama finished, released the mokuton, and walked towards the dock kicking up eddies of water. Before stepping on he hesistated, looked at Madara.

"Are you coming?"

A smile, dragonfly fast, and then Madara went forward displacing no water at all. He was so fragile it seemed that the sun illuminated the blue veins under his skin, imparting a delicacy that did not exist to the strongest features in the Fire Country. Still you had known that his entire existence at the no man's land of truce was a fragile one, and for the first time then you thought that perhaps, that did not matter. That perhaps his fragility there could be matched by the not-yet Hokage's strength.

Their hands met, the spray of droplets fanning out as Hashirama pulled him up onto the sunlit boards.


V.

You follow him into the dark. The seal you laid for his sandal draws you to him, its counterpart on your own foot resonating as you draw closer. An unreliable means of navigation but hardly one that you need; he has laid his trail in fire and is now crouching in the middle of the clearing that he has made for himself. Cloak tied up and at the back like a hunchbacked hermit's, but his eyes are steady and alight with cool red flame. He does not look mad, except.

Ink tells you. Ink is designed to communicate, and under the proper circumstances, with the proper permutations of chakra, that is what it does. Ink blended properly can be applied to your lips making a man believe you to be lovelier than you are; ink stirred into your family crest can make you brave enough to ride into a new country, ink screened onto a renegade's sandal can draw you to him as surely as the moon draws the tides. Ink touching his feet tells you how the forest now flees from his presence. A match about to be struck. Some terrible power coalescing in the air around him, as though he breathes malevolence.

The heat that used to roll off him in impossible waves has now blueshifted to a matchless cold. He has kept his anger, but aged overnight nonetheless.

You are a liar, Hokage-sama, you think. You were wrong, then, about anger.

"Uchiha-dono," you say, and he looks at you disinterestedly before returning to scrawling in the dirt with a long stick.

"Civil life suits you. You look breakable. Like a doll," he has never understood the proper applications of civilian pleasantries. "It is well that you are here. Observe my seal work."

"It is very fine indeed."

You move back attempting to see the entire seal that he has drawn and quite suddenly he has stood, lurched, and closed the distance between you. In his eyes there is only a blankness. A wet spot in the midst of flame and you are scared, your insides curling with it. His gestures cold as though he could curl fingers around the air and squeeze its marrow dry. He puts his hand on your neck as if checking for fever and you are unable to halt the dry swallow that comes.

"I should kill you."

It will be quick, at the least. You close your eyes and within seconds hear him pacing again, picking up his stick to add length to the downstroke of a hasty character. As he was pressed close to you you made sure to tilt the buckler at your waist, smearing ink against the skin exposed by his robe. Now the black smudge measures his heart rate, senses his temperature, calibrates the movement of his muscles warning you if he intends to come any closer. It's not a significant advantage, but it is one.

He looks at the smudge then returns to his work. Madara has never meant to underestimate anyone; in his case, it is mostly a proper approximation of the effect others will have on him. Now however you watch him drawing a seal in the dirt like an impoverished child, wearing a cloak caked with dirt and god knows what else, hair already beginning to grow matted. Your heart breaks in increments traversing the length of his body, each descent into weakness a failure on Hashirama's land, a betrayal of an ideal you had thought for so long could sustain you, the way it had sustained him. A sun gone dark in the sky—and where will you go now, with that all-encompassing light put out like a torn-away heart?

"Stop crying, you stupid girl," he says. "Save your pity for yourself and your own wretched situation. A slave to his toy village, do you think I envy you your lot?"

"I—"

"Not even his whore," he demands, "less even than something used for pleasure—an ornament in his house, the next logical step to his conquest—do you think I envy you?"

You are shaking in earnest now, without sound but with too much force as if he is pulling your insides from you yard over yard hitching them on your ribs as he goes. As well he might be; the seal pattern in the dirt is nothing you recognize. Your useless hands, shaking with nothing to offer him. Not yours, after all. The hands of a kunoichi in the service of her lord's justice, and for the first time you understand what this means. The realization hits you all at once the urgency of centuries smashing into your collarbones doubling you over in the dirt clutching your stomach, sick with pity, for whom you don't know.

The scratching of the stick brings you back, what seems like years later. Your cheeks are dirty, you smudge at them leaving a stripe of ink at your cheek. It's from the same stirred batch as that which now dots his pectorals and you can feel the trapped heartbeat. Pounding under your own skin.

"He will not come," you say, the last words you will ever speak to him in this lifetime.

He looks at you then, as an equal in what you have both yearned for and lost. In that clean glance that seems like bone exposed to sunlight you see white banners around a kneeling boy, the first tentative steps across a river. A dock growing from the barren wilderness and an outstretched tanned hand pulling someone lost onto the floorboards, creating a home where before there had been nothing. So much had been gained; it was the only way so much could be taken. The trust betrayed has now eluded you; your scholars' mind can no longer parse who is the betrayer and who is the betrayed.

For those moments all you know is that Uchiha Madara stands before you having unshielded his eyes to the light of the sun, as you did, that he gave up so much of his anger away with his lands and his clan but kept a piece of it next to his breast, all he had to shield himself against a man who did not need him as he was needed. That it was that piece that had been his undoing, and yours, and Hashirama's, and that for the rest of your life you will carry a demon under your skin and believe that it is fitting that your insides, at least, should match what you have become.

Madara's next words will be true, as they are always. They will not be true in the way he believes, and that, you will always remember, will make all the difference. But for the moment they will be the words of someone who has through carelessness or negligence become intoxicated with trust.

He taps the stick on the dirt for emphasis and with a sudden shift in perspective you see that the seal pattern is a summoning circle, larger than any you have ever seen.

"He will come," says Madara, and then, for all the world, you believe him.


VI.

You had followed him into the dark. It was black as pitch for the moment and then without warning the night sky was awash with fireflies.

"Ah, Uzumaki-san," he'd said and chuckled. "Awake at this hour? You are dedicated to your duties."

"I am pleased you think so, Senju-dono," because his hair was incandescent with golden dust and your heart was in your mouth. He gestured to the seat across from him on the porch outside the banner room and you knelt, closing the sliding door behind you shielding the white linen from view.

It was the last day before the village's inaugaration and you were both tired. The last clans had been coming in from the borderlands and the banner room was full. Your fingers were covered in ink retracing the lines of allegiance, writing the lines for contracts with stipulations breathed into your ink that you would be able to sense treachery before it began.

You sat like that with him. Quiet, exhausted, but the night was filled with sound and the haze that came with natural light. Something inevitable, a force that changed the landscape but did not push against it, simply shaped it slowly, inexorably as the tides; this was then how you had envisioned the Senju leader's love. A gentle patience scattered across the sky in golden pinpricks. The world tilted grew lazy in the spring evening and it was easy to see the figure approaching from the outfields.

Madara knelt before you to unlace his sandals. When he came up onto the porch you saw the white banner in his arms. He did not speak but cast you a disdainful look and went into the darkened banner room. He set down his burden and in the halo of light cast into the room you saw the Uchiha crest painted on the white cloth. The final surrender, made an act of nobility by how carefully he did it.

Hashirama had sprung up then, took the stairs two at a time with the odd boyishness that only ever surfaced in situations with Madara, and slid the door open so hard the rice-paper tore. Then they were both kneeling together on the floor, Hashirama half-laughing half-crying and clutching Madara's shoulders, pressing his face into Madara's collarbone as Madara said, "A formality—nothing more—you cannot have thought I would not—" and you were laughing too, probably, drunk on the glittering night and its endless was, you had thought then, the sole moment when they had met as equals, united in their expectations and the ways they came forward to fulfill them. the truce made organically, at last, beautiful and new and rare.

"I did not," Hashirama had said, "I knew you would come," and then, for all the world, you had believed him.


end