Unintelligible.

The kanjis on the paper merged together, stubbornly refusing to remain in place and be read, forming incomprehensible symbols. The headache also didn't make it any easier for him to decipher the document.

Madara started rubbing his temples. He remained like that for some time, until his head stopped pounding, and then put a hand in front of his face. The sight made him flinch.

It seemed much further than he knew it was, and it almost looked like gravity was pulling the center of his palm downwards. Those symptoms weren't new, and he was almost used to them, but what really made his stomach churn was his skin. It looked as if it was wavering, or rather, as if something was crawling underneath it. He felt a sudden urge to scratch it, just to make sure it was just an illusion, but he knew it was foolish believing it could be anything else. His condition was worsening.

With a frustrated huff, he pulled himself off of his seat, hands buried in his hair and eyes turned to the dark ceiling, as he paced around the room. There was no use in going back to work now; not when his vision was currently as sharp as a dull knife.

Too busy with his own thoughts, Madara only noticed the approaching presence when his door was opened and he looked down, only to glare daggers at the newcomer.

"Izuna." The young man turned his back to the door he had just closed and watched the other warily, the amount of hostility in his voice not going unnoticed as he drawled "Where were you?"

The shinobi sighed, hiding a small smile. He should have figured that this was why his brother was so angry. "Outside."

"Outside." He repeated "Doing?"

"Nothing in particular, dear brother. Just walking."

"I see." By his tone, Izuna knew he was being sarcastic "I'm pleased to know at least one of us has plenty of free time."

"Too much paper work?" The younger sibling asked sympathetically.

"You don't have the slightest idea." And with that, he dropped down on the couch, making a cloud of dust rise from the seat.

"This place is filthy." Izuna commented, sitting down in front of the table "Don't you have people to clean this office for you?"

"The tolerable maid is ill."

"Tolerable?" The other snorted in amusement "And what are the other ones? Annoying?"

"The majority." Madara answered, playing with a fold in his pants

"Wouldn't it be nice if the maids found out you find them annoying?" Izuna smiled warmly, though there was a touch of malice behind it.

"Wouldn't it be nice if you did something profitable for a change?" The other asked, eyebrows raised.

"Can't argue with that." He replied cheerfully, and Madara was satisfied when he heard the sound of sheets turning and sentences being scribbled.

A few minutes went by before Izuna spoke again.

"You know" He was interrupted by a loud sigh "… I was going to suggest you go outside and take a walk, but if you want to lie in a dark dusty room and sneeze to your death, fine by me."

"I'm leaving." Madara threw his legs over the couch and stood up, as, unbeknownst to him, his brother rolled his eyes "Don't slack."

"Positive reinforcement works sometimes, too!" A voice called out behind him.

He closed the door and leaned against its frame for a few seconds, trying to hide a small smile. Izuna was always so lazy… but Madara didn't want to think of what would have be of him if his brother hadn't been there all along, or if anything happened to him. And so – then his smile turned into a frown – if his most trusted medics didn't find a real cure for his condition, there would be hell to pay for.

"I think I can see it!" The girl yelled, pointing to somewhere in the horizon "Yes! There is something there!"

She squeaked excitedly and leaned in closer, only to be held back by a hand in her shoulder.

"Hey, calm down!" A voice called jokingly "You're going to fall down like this!"

Ringo turned around and gave Riki a bright smile, before sitting down in her spot in the cart.

They had been in the road for about twenty hours. Riki's grandfather had been kind enough to take her, her father and a few other villagers on their small, but resistant cart, so they wouldn't have to emigrate on foot instead.

The war between the Uchiha and the Kaguya was only in its initial stage, but the fear of invasion was ever ongoing, and since they lived the closest to the borders of their territory, the entire village was forced to move to the center of the territory.

Despite her excitement, Ringo wasn't happy about moving. She was glad to be able to leave the cart soon, but she'd still rather be living in her farm, in the woods. She felt a pang in the chest remembering all the things she had to leave behind, many precious memories among them.

However, the one who was suffering the most was, by far, her father. As time passed, he became more and more bitter, but the moving had made him take a turn for the worse. Ever since the village leader gave the announcement, Katsuro had gained a completely new dark aura. Ringo was used to people telling her that there was something unsettling about her father, but she never gave it much thought. Yet, just recently she started feeling uncomfortable around him at times, and everyone else seemed to find his presence torturous.

She blamed the sickness. Her father's health had never been perfect, having had troubles breathing ever since he was a kid, and they had to take the greatest of cares with it, as any cold could leave him bed-ridden for days, but now stricken with another disease; something in the bones, it seemed. Katsuro never complained about his condition, but she could see he was in pain.

"Oh, I see it too!" The elder man riding the vehicle exclaimed "We're getting there, everyone! Just a few more minutes." Most people in the tight cart seemed quite happy about the news, while others muttered impatiently.

The last minutes of the trip seemed to take the longest to pass, but finally they arrived at the outside wall surrounding the village near the compound. They were huge, made of dark slippery rocks, and standing close to it, Ringo couldn't even see where it ended, as it seemed to reach up to the skies. They sure seemed to be prepared for a war.

The cart and the mules had to stay outside, and after the guards on the gate allowed them to pass, the group walked in. The inside, much like her home village, was bustling with activity, from people just passing by, to children playing in the streets, ninja going about on their duties and vendors shouting to expose a myriad or products. It was bigger than her town, but also considerably more crowded.

The girl sat down under a tree as her father checked a few papers with the shinobi, who directed them to where their house should be. Though Ringo showed amazement that they had been provided with a place to stay, Katsuro said she shouldn't be too excited about it. And truthfully, their new home was fairly small and simple, and they'd have to share a room. Other than that, she had no complaints, as the house seemed new and resistant, but according to her father, because of the materials and the huge walls surrounding the village, the place would be scorching during the warmer months.

At the farthest point of the village, another, thicker stone wall surrounded a very large building.

'So this is The compound' Ringo mused with fascination. She never thought it would be that big, but considering it was the main building of the clan and that, from what she had heard, all the ninja lived in that place when they weren't out on missions, the size was no wonder.

But that was truly the only interesting part about that place. Even if Ringo was fine with the house, she most certainly wasn't happy about the proximity of the other residences. It would be almost impossible to walk around without bumping into other peasants. She knew her father and she could try to move to a better house more to the center of the fortress or to a farther territory, but they'd have to pay for it themselves. Though she liked people, she wasn't particularly fond of being with so many of them in such a small space.

Sitting in the tiny porch of her new home and watching the mob of civilians and soldiers walk about, she frowned when she remembered she'd still have to find a new job, and chances were, she wouldn't be able to tend to apple trees.

Other than taking care of plants she wasn't particularly good at anything. She had a good aim and could make beds faster than anyone she had ever met, but those hardly seemed like talents to her. Because her family had always been considerably well-off she had learned how to read and write and a little math (though she was relay bad at the little she knew), unlike most of her friends, but she didn't know if any of those could get her a job there. She could cook and clean, though, so she figured she'd have more luck finding a job that required such abilities. However, the prospective of being either a maid or a cook didn't appeal to her.

She sighed

She really wanted to go home.

Ringo had almost finished her chores for the day, and there was only one more item to cross out of her list. Though she was sleepy and her bones were sore, she was glad her last task didn't involve getting on her knees and scrubbing the floors like she had been for most of the day, and that brought her renewed energy.

She could not recall having such a tiring routine since ever. Being a maid was as boring as she thought it would be, but unfortunately it was considerably harder too. The work at the farm was almost easy compared to her new one, not to mention that now she had to follow a schedule and work for a certain amount of hours every day, and how much a little mistake could cost her. Back in her hometown, people were much more patient, but in the Uchiha compound, if things didn't go according to the plan, she would be in for it, and she had received enough warnings of her superiors to pick up her pace.

Not that she was happy about it.

If it wasn't for that stupid war, she could be home right now. At this hour in the evening, she'd be helping her father with dinner and she'd be telling him about her day. Her father smiled less and less with each passing day, but all of her stories would cheer him up. Now that all of their so called "friends" started avoiding him because of his difficult situation, she knew that if she wasn't there to take care of him, none else would.

Her last chore was to clean up an office. It seemed simple enough, but upon seeing the room, Ringo threw her head back and let out a frustrated groan. That place was ridiculously messy, with papers scattered around the floor, paint spilled on the desk, a tray with the remains of what seemed to have been someone's lunch, open bottles leaking suspicious liquids on the rug, stains on the sofa and pillows, candle wax one the wooden furniture, and she could swear there was even a pile of clothes in a corner. On top of all that, everything was covered by a thick layer of dust. She wasn't a particularly tidy person, but she wondered who could get any job done in those conditions.

The plan of action was to clean up the mixture of fluids in the desk first, to avoid any important documents getting wet , then pick up the papers from the ground and try to pile them together the best she could, and then clean the furniture. She wasn't sure if she could do anything about the couch, though.

Ringo skipped to the table in the center of the room, trying to balance various cleaning supplies while also avoiding stepping on any papers. She picked up some documents from the desk and set them on the ground before dipping a rag in a water bucket to clean the surface. The blend of liquids had a peculiar, but nonetheless pleasant, smell. It was definitely a combination of jasmine tea, sake, paint and a few other things she was certain were different types of medicine.

She dropped the cloth in the bucket and crouched down to pick up the sheets littered across the room. She didn't think she was allowed to read them, so she'd have to make a pile for all of them. However, that was probably a blessing rather than a curse, as sorting out paperwork seemed far from fun.

It had been probably a little over two minutes when Ringo concluded she had gathered as many papers as she could – and there were still some left – when she turned around and started getting up, but something that hadn't been in the room before made her stop in her tracks.

When she recognized the shadow as a human, she instantly realized who it was and it made her heartbeat triple and her stomach churn – not in excitement, but in fear. He had become taller, and from his crossed arm she could see he was also stronger. His hair, that she fondly remembered having leaves and twigs sticking out of it, was longer and cleaner, though spiky as ever. His features were unmistakable; a little sharper if anything, and the bags beneath his eyes darker, as if he had had many sleepless nights. Ringo didn't know how long he had been there, but from his relaxed position and the closed door, he couldn't have just walked in.

"Small world." Madara said in a low voice, and after what seemed like an eternity, he started taking deliberate steps towards her.

Realizing in what unfortunate position she was, Ringo hurried to stand back up, but before she could reach her full height, something connected with the top of her head with such strength she felt her brain reverberating inside her cranium and she was pushed down to the ground, dropping the pile of papers and landing on all fours.

Her breathing was ragged and her wide eyes focused on a stain on the rug, and she didn't turn away from it as the steps started again, turning around her.

"Once you know your place" The man started, in a, oh, so despicable voice "you should stay put."

There was a sound of something being dragged against the wooden boards and Ringo concluded he was sitting down in front of the desk. His desk.

Out of every place she could be sent to, it had to be to that man's office, didn't it? It was as if destiny itself was mocking her; no, plotting her demise. She'd rather scrub the floor in the main hall over and over again until her hands and knees bled than be there. She had to escape; she had to find a way to…

"So?" Madara's voice cut through her thoughts like a knife "Finish what you came here for."

As if waking up from a trance, Ringo started picking up the papers she had dropped, and once she was finished she got back up.

"Down." The maid's head snapped up to stare at the man with utter confusion "Back on your knees."

"How am I supposed to clean, then?" She muttered, realizing those were the first words she spoke to him in years. She had never thought she'd talk to him again, and she always made a conscious effort not to think of Madara, as she knew it wouldn't bring her any peace, but she wished that, if fate wanted them to meet again, that it would happen in different circumstances. However, she decided the fault wasn't hers, as he was being so unpleasant. She wondered if he was like that to all the people who worked under him or it was just her who received such a treatment.

"On your knees, eyes downcast and mouth shut. That's how." He answered, not even glancing at her, and choosing instead to look for something in a drawer.

Ringo felt as if electricity was running through her body, as she bit her lower lip and felt angry tears welling up in the corner of her eyes. With excruciating slowness, she crouched down, and when her knees touched the carpeted floor, it hurt a lot more than she expected.

The girl set the pile of papers on the desk with shaky hands, ignoring her desperate wish to shove them down that monster's throat.

Madara didn't even blink at her action, and Ringo lowered her head until it touched her legs. She clawed at the rug, remaining still for some seconds, until she mustered the willpower to pick up a sheet lying discarded by her side.

The one thing she wished for the most at that moment was that the Kaguya would be defeated for once and for all, but that desire had nothing to do with her clan. She only wanted the war to be over so she could go back to her village, and as far away from that man as she could.

The rain fell down outside of the cabin while the man sat by the window, watching the stream of water falling off the roof tiles, creating something he could only describe as a flowing canopy covering the whole house.

He turned around when the pitter patter sound was interrupted by a loud slam, and came face to face with a young woman, yet on her late teens, shivering and soaked to the bone, with a scowl on her face.

"It's raining." She stated in a somber voice. Though her posture indicated she was tired, her eyes were ablaze with a strange glow.

"Yes, it is." Katsuro stood up "You could have waited for it to dim a little… But I knew you wouldn't. There's warm water for you to take a bath." Ringo's expression softened and she offered him a small smile.

"Thank you."

"There's food too; now, don't dawdle or you'll catch a cold."

Ringo walked to their small bathroom, took of her wet clothes and stepped into their small tub. Her sore muscles went stiff and she watched as her knees buckled from the sudden change of temperature.

Her father was so nice. He had insisted in looking for a job too so she wouldn't have to support the two of them by herself, but Ringo knew he was in no condition to work, most of all for the ruthless employers in the Uchiha compound, and even then, he insisted on doing all the house chores so she'd be able to rest when she was home.

Six out of seven days Ringo had to work from seven in the morning to about seven in the evening. Three out of these six days she had to clean Madara's office, and for all the two months she had been working there he always made she do everything on her knees. She had spoken to her supervisor about changing her schedule, but the woman said she was too busy to rearrange everything at the moment. Ringo told herself she'd be able to endure it for long enough, just until their village was in no danger of being invaded and they could go home. And she thought she was going well too, but now…

The day had been good. She was getting used to washing the floors, stopped bumping on furniture and almost knocking expensive vases down and thought she was getting used to standing on her knees. She had finished most of her tasks quickly, and was just about to crawl out of Madara's office when he set down a parchment he was reading, cleared his throat, and flipped his desk, sending papers, and bottles, and ink quills, and brushes and food to the ground. The girl looked at the mess with wide eyes, but the clan leader wasn't done yet. He pulled down a bookshelf, causing it to hit a wall and all the books to fall down; he pushed objects from a table in the back of the room and they crashed when they hit the floor; he knocked down the couch and he kicked her bucket, sending dirty water to the ground and splashing on her clothes.

Ringo started trembling and she tugged on the carpet as if she would fall if she didn't get a grip on something. The time she finished her job had little importance. She could only leave when her tasks were finished. They were – she had been… But now she couldn't leave. Not until that place was pristine.

The shinobi walked towards the exit casually, but not before crouching to her level and whispering slowly in a tone she could only describe as sadistic "Clean this up."

Ringo hugged her shaky legs and rested her forehead against her knees and took a deep breath. No wonder they were hurting so much. Because of Madara's antic she had to stay more than one hour later than her usual shift. At first she thought that maybe he was angry at something written in the paper, but she had been around him long enough to see that he wasn't as prone to express his anger anymore, much less trashing his whole office. He really didn't seem angry when he did all that, though. Could it be all because of her…?

She sighed and shook her head. That was egocentric of her. Though it was quite obvious he treated her worse than the other maids – and that didn't really surprise her – she also didn't believe he would go out of his way to make her suffer. He was not out to get her. She found some comfort in that thought, but it didn't last long. He would not push her off a cliff, but if she was dangling from one, he certainly wouldn't find it troublesome to step on her fingers to make her fall.

When she had been called to her supervisor's office earlier that morning, Ringo couldn't believe her luck. While she didn't know for sure that her schedule would be changed, she had to remain positive.

Standing outside the room, as she had been instructed, the young woman tried to smooth the folds of her apron, but to no avail. She looked pitiful, and found it curious she was so amused by this realization.

The door to the office opened, and a tall woman walked out with a small sheet in her hands. Inside the room, another woman, sitting in front of a table, beckoned her in with a wave of her hand, while still looking to a pile of papers in front of her.

The interior was small and the walls were lined up with shelves. Ringo noticed the woman had stuffed every available place with documents, and considering the amount of them, she should have very little free time.

"What's your name?" The supervisor asked with a blank tone, still not looking at her.

"Ringo…" The girl felt tempted to add a 'Sir' to the sentence, but decided against it.

"Hum hum. So what don't you like about your schedule?" The woman didn't seem particularly interested in her, but then she looked up with a serious expression "Cleaning the floors is not optional."

"Oh, no, I'm fine with that!" Ringo was quick to remark "I noticed you had a backyard garden, with fruit trees and everything… I used to work in an apple orchard before we moved here and I know how to take care of plants."

"You want to help with the garden?" Ringo noticed the slightest change in the woman's eyes. She seemed somewhat amused. "That's unusual but can be arranged. Anything else you're good at?"

"Making beds." The girl admitted, somewhat embarrassed. Being fast at making beds never seemed like a very special talent to her.

"To the chambers you go, then. And what would you like to change?"

"If it's possible, cleaning anything easily breakable and… About…" She paused, having difficulty to muster her next words "Madara-sama's office…"

"Oh, yes." The woman's lips curled in what could be the beginning of a smirk "So you're the one who's doing it now. There were no complaints about you, but most maids don't like to take up that task."

Now, that was a surprise. From the way she had been treated all this time Ringo thought Madara would have many bad things to say about her work, even if made up.

"So if that's all, you can wait while I rearrange your schedule." There were no chairs left in the room so the girl leaned against the wall and started trying to straighten her apron again. It took the woman a few minutes to fill the whole paper, but Ringo savored it more every second that went by. The girl couldn't hold back a grin when the sheet was finally handed to her, but before she could pull it from the woman's hands, the supervisor leaned in closer, staring with hard eyes.

"I expect nothing short of perfection, understood?"

"Yes…! M'am!" She finally remembered the word she was supposed to use.

"Now run along and do your chores." The woman sent her away with a wave of her hand and Ringo ran out of the office, giggling like a child who had just done something naughty and knew they wouldn't be punished for it. She skipped all the way to the main hall where she was supposed to scrub the floor. She didn't like that task, but she'd never let such a small thing ruin that day.

Madara drummed his fingers against the table impatiently.

Late.

After all the days Ringo had been cleaned his office, he noticed that she was fairly punctual, and he had made sure to arrive early that day just so he'd have the pleasure to tell her to get on her knees. Every time he arrived she was already there, and with time she had learned to notice his approach and kneel down before he entered, and thus he never had anything to torture her with. He was pleased when he found out that his last antic had forced Ringo to stay in late. It would be a hassle to get things to replace the ones he broke and the council would think him mad, but none would be able to convince him it hadn't been worth it.

At last the door opened, when he noticed it wasn't the person he was expecting. It was a maid alright, but not Ringo. She was shorter and her hair not as messy. The face was certainly the biggest difference between the two, and he knew he would never mistake one for another, not even if he was drunk on the verge of passing out.

"What are you doing here?" He asked, startling the girl.

"Hm… Cleaning?" The maid stared at him with wide eyes and held her cleaning supplies in front of her as to protect herself. It could have been a funny scene if he wasn't in such a sour mood.

"And who said you were to clean my office?"

"Sanae-san did."

"Did she?" He continued in a conversational tone, despite the fact that it was evident that the girl felt as if she was being interrogated "And what do you think of these arrangements?"

She seemed surprised about having her opinion considered, and smiled tentatively while also shrugging.

"Then" Madara rose from his chair "allow me to fix this situation." And he walked to the exit, but before reaching the door he turned back to the maid "And an advice: Knock before entering someone's office."

"Knock?" The girl furrowed her brows and then gasped when the head of her clan was suddenly standing right in front of her. He raised his hand and she braced herself for the worst, but only got a fist tapping against her head lightly.

"Knock, knock, anyone there?" The man asked. After waiting for a few seconds and receiving no responses he continued "Apparently not."

Madara left the room, leaving the girl to herself. After a few instants, she asked in disbelief:

"Did he just call me dumb?"

The day was surprisingly warm, more than anyone had predicted, and thus most people were having lunch outside. Ringo had sat down in the porch with a group of maids, talking about their own stories and, when they ran out of things to say, gossiping. Her father always said that gossiping was for rude and stupid people, but sometimes the urge to talk was larger than the repertory, and Ringo concluded that this was the reason why people gossiped. She wasn't too averse to it, either.

"... and she lied! Worst of all, Hitomi believed every word she said!" A girl with short hair was telling a story of another maid she had been cleaning a kunoichi's room with, and most of her statements were said in an excited tone.

"Well, Yuri lies a lot." Another maid spoke, grinning "I'm surprised she never got caught!"

"Shut up!" The first maid said "You lie all the time!"

"I do not!"

"Yeah, you do!"

"That's coming back to Yuri sooner or later." Another girl chided in, probably trying to avoid an argument "She's lying about something that was her fault in the face of someone who can break her in half. I wouldn't do that."

"Well, if I could get away with it, I would!" The first maid declared.

"Honesty is the best policy~" A fourth girl said with a hint of a smirk.

Ringo felt slightly uncomfortable. Though she was happy to have someone to share her meal with, she didn't feel entirely safe to make an input in the girls' conversation. They had welcomed her (at least, it seemed like they had), but she didn't feel brave enough to talk often –her, out of all people! That place made her feel like she wasn't herself anymore…

"There you are!" A voice called from behind her, and Ringo turned around to see her supervisor striding towards her group. Her face seemed strangely flushed, as if she was embarrassed. "Sachiko and…" she paused, looking at the girl expectantly.

"…Ringo" she completed uncertainly.

"Yes, well, I need you two in my office now."

"Ah!" The girl, who had been smirking just a few seconds ago squeaked, a look of fear crossing her eyes "Did I do something wrong?"

"What could you have done wrong?" the first girl asked raising her eyebrows "Seriously, you?"

"I don't know!" she yelled, burying her face in her hands.

"Don't worry, none is in trouble." The supervisor sighed "Except for me, maybe. I just need to fix your schedules."

The woman started walking away, with the other maid not far behind, looking relieved, and Ringo found herself forced to follow them, though she wasn't happy about the change. She did rather like her schedule as it was.

There were already two other people waiting outside the room: a tall girl, with her long hair tied in a lose ponytail, looking somewhat nervous, and a shorter young man, staring at the ceiling, bored.

Sanae opened the door to her office and the four walked in, squeezing themselves in order to fit all in the small space.

"Sachiko, you won't be taking up the task to clean Madara-sama's office anymore."

The girl's eyes widened, and so did Ringo's.

"What did I do?" Sachiko asked, seemed genuinely surprised.

"Nothing that I know of." Sanae reassured, handing her a small piece of paper "There were no complaints about you, don't worry." Ringo flinched, remembering that those were the same words she used a few days ago, before changing her schedule.

"Akari, you'll help clean the east wing chambers and with the cooking." The supervisor continued, and the other girl nodded, murmuring an affirmative. Those were Ringo's tasks. "Seto, you're free from stable duty and will have more time in the garden instead." The boy seemed genuinely happy and revealed a crooked grin to show his approval, while the woman gave him and the other girl their new schedules.

"Ringo, here's yours." Sanae extended a fourth sheet and waited for her to take it. Ringo complied, but she wasn't happy about it. The woman hadn't said anything about her new tasks, but if the change in the others' revealed anything, she was sure she wouldn't like her new schedule.

As Ringo assumed, she wasn't to help in the kitchen anymore. That didn't bother her too much, even though she had always liked to help others cook. She had also been stripped of her rights to tend to the garden, and was now supposed to help clean up the stables instead, which was a ridiculous notion. First, she had no idea until that day that they had a stable; second, she had never seen a horse up close, let alone clean the mess of one; and third, from what Riki had told her, tending to large animals was more straining than it looked. She also wasn't to tend to any chambers, scratching out the one task she could perform easily. She had received an extra task – more stable duty, on Saturday mornings, forcing her to be there for duty an hour earlier than usual. And, to compliment the mess that her schedule already was, she had received once more the task to clean an office (not three, but four times a week now), and she didn't have to be told whose office it was.

"Any complaints?"

Before any of the other three could answer, Ringo shouted a sharp 'yes', and her answer was met with a disdainful look from Seto, a hurtful one from Sachiko and a concerned glance from Akari.

She wanted to tear that stupid paper into pieces.

"Alright." Sanae sighed "If none else has problems with their schedule, you can leave." Almost immediately, the other three left the room, closing the door behind them.

"Sanae-san…" Ringo muttered a few seconds later "You didn't organize my schedule."

"No." The woman admitted "And that's why I can't change it."

"That's not fair." She complained, more to herself than her supervisor.

"I don't know what's going on, but I won't go against Madara-sama's orders."

"But he's crazy!" She said, louder than she had intended, and the woman in front of her pursed her lips in disapproval.

"You are from an evacuated village, aren't you?" the girl nodded "Then you should remember that you owe him your safety."

Ringo's lips pressed together and her eyes widened. 'I owe him shit!' Is what she wanted to say, but she bit her tongue. She left silently, while inwards she wanted to slam the door behind her.

She wasn't mad at Sanae for the schedule –after all, she had had no say in it – but she couldn't possibly forgive her last claim. If she meant that being forced to move away from her home had saved her life, Ringo decided she hadn't evaluated the situation correctly. And who was at fault that they were in war now? Even if the Uchiha hadn't started the conflict, if they hadn't been trying to annex other territories the Kaguya wouldn't have picked a fight with them. At last, she concluded that if she hadn't been born to a shinobi clan, she'd be much better off.

She wished she could just run away, grab a bag and walk to a land she had never seen, where there were no ninja and people weren't divided by something as petty as their last names. But defecting had always been a crime, punishable by death sometimes, and she knew escape was a hopeless option.

She knew the exact meaning of her father's words now.

Ringo marched towards her fate with head held high and clenched fists. She walked as she imagined a proud warrior would. Not that she honestly believed she'd be executed, but thinking of the more extreme possibilities helped a little.

She didn't feel as scared of entering Madara's office as she used to. Now she only felt anger. She was aware that Madara was, in fact, out to get her and make her life in the Uchiha compound as miserable as he could, but she couldn't bring herself to be afraid of him at the moment. She didn't care if he was the clan's leader now – it wouldn't matter even if he was the ruler of the world; Madara wasn't treating her fairly, and there was no way she'd let him get away with it without at least a scolding.

The girl turned the doorknob and stepped inside, finding someone already sitting at the desk in the center of the dark room. She used her best glare on him, and she knew he could see it despite the dim light, because she could see the hostile, yet victorious expression on his face.

"Get down." He drawled, as if savoring the moment.

Ringo had just closed the door behind her, her hands still on the handle, when her glare intensified in a way she didn't know was possible. She had never practiced her intimidating face, since the only type of interaction she sought with others was of the friendly kind, and she didn't believe intimidation was very friendly, but Madara seemed to be bringing the worst of her out. She was feeling rather proud of herself, but her opponent didn't seem fazed in the least.

"I'm waiting." His voice lowered and he seemed to lean in closer, while keeping his eyes locked with hers.

That staring contest made Ringo want to look away, but she forced herself to endure it. It was unfair how looking at someone's eyes could affect people in such ways, and even more unfair that Madara was so much better at it than her. He clearly had all the advantages, so why couldn't she at least be able to hold his gaze?

"Why?" She asked after inhaling briefly "You weren't going to see me again. Why did you change my schedule?"

"I don't think you've heard me." His tone was sickly-sweet for a moment, before darkening authoritatively "Down."

"Make me!" She snapped, not really considering the meaning of her words.

"Oh" Madara seemed pleased with her answer "Is that a challenge?"

Ringo gulped when he stood from his chair. Her mind was torn between staying her ground and running away, closing the door on his face. As he walked towards her with slow steps, she had time to think of how he would catch up with her if she tried to run, and that it would only make things worse for her anyway, while willingly getting on her knees was completely out of question.

Madara came to a halt, just a foot in front of her, and Ringo felt her legs shaking. He stared for a moment, seemingly examining her expression, before quickly grabbing the front of her shirt and yanking her down.

She had managed to cushion the fall with her forearms, but her knees took some of the shock and she felt them hurt. However, it wasn't so bad she couldn't stand back up again, and that was precisely what she was going to do when she felt something on her back.

Was he stepping on her?

Moving her head to the side just a bit allowed her to see Madara standing, looking at her impassively with arms crossed, and from his position there was no doubt he was using his foot to keep her pinned to the ground. It didn't cause her any physical pain, but her pride was so wounded she felt like screaming.

"You are to stay on the ground." He spoke, applying more pressure "And if you forget it, I'll gladly remind you."

He waited for a few seconds before allowing her to move again. Ringo got on all fours, then on her knees. She was just setting a foot on the ground to stand back up, when something hit the back of her head and pushed her back down again. Because she landed on her hands and knees, and the new force on her back made her limbs cave in, she fell on her chin with a cry.

"Every time you try to stand up, I'll push you back down until you learn your place."

Ringo grunted, placing her arms on the floor and lifting her head, swaying her jaw from side to side to test the damage. It wasn't too bad. That gave her enough motivation to challenge him further, even if a part of her insisted that she was mad for it.

"I can keep this up all night long!" She reassured and turned to look at him, a wild grin spread across her face.

"I do hope you will."

His voice was devoid of emotion, and when Ringo tried to crouch, something made her fall again.

She was on all fours when Madara's foot came to rest on her back again. He wasn't using so much strength she was pushed down, but it was enough to keep her from standing.

"But you know" He started conversationally, as if he was talking about the weather rather than forcing her to kiss the ground "You cannot leave until you have finished all of your tasks, and of course that I won't let you touch anything until you learn your position here."

Oh, how she felt like screeching. She wished she was able to overpower him and shove her fist in his face. It didn't matter who he was; he had no right to treat people like vermin, and Ringo felt as if it was her mission to show him that.

She would show him that he shouldn't be able to get things like that. She would endure his abuse and not bend her will to his. She would fight him. She had to.

Ringo wasn't sure at what time she arrived home, but the village streets were practically empty, so she knew it was late. However it wasn't so late it meant she had lasted all night, and she wouldn't be allowed to forget it.

Needless to say, she hadn't been able to withstand Madara's abuse for a whole night. She thought she had lasted for a respectable time, rising to her feet and being pushed back down several times, but anything less than until morning didn't seem to impress the clan leader. When she finally agreed to remain on her knees he had snickered and started making particularly rude remarks, but she had chosen not to acknowledge them. He didn't seem to care whether she would respond or not.

Though she had felt the familiar sensation of something squeezing her heart and throat on her first day at Madara's office, she hadn't cried once so far. That is, up until that day.

She had tried to hold it in, but at some point her contained anger and wounded pride became so unbearably painful, she just sat in front of the man's desk (where he could only see her if he leaned away from his work) and wept copiously. She had covered her mouth to keep from making noises, but there was a part of her that was sure Madara knew exactly what she was doing, because there was something very cruel about his voice when he told her to get away from his table and do her job.

It took her much longer to clean up than it should have, all because she had to pause to take calming breaths. On top of that, she couldn't stop shaking, and even broke an ink quill, for which she had been severely reprimanded. The longer she spent in that room with him, the more reasons to wail she got.

When she was finally permitted to leave (which seemed like an eternity later), she stumbled through the deserted village to her home, her face grave and eyes dry.

She opened the door and came face to face with her father's wide eyes, and at his expression her lips quivered.

"Ringo, what happened?" Katsuro asked, worry evident in his voice "Why are you late? I asked some people about where you could-"

He didn't get to finish his sentence, as the girl crashed against him, hugging him and crying on his chest.

The man uttered something in confusion, before embracing her.

"What happened?" He asked. His hands patted her back, as if trying to comfort her, but Ringo could tell he was uncomfortable with the situation.

"I want to go home." She sobbed.

"No, I mean what happened? You didn't cry when we moved, but now you are like this? Something…"

Ringo went stiff. She didn't want to tell her father about Madara. She didn't know why – It wasn't as if she had had much choice – but she didn't want him to know that she was being treated like that, by that person most of all. She was set on keeping the two of them apart and solving these issues by herself.

"I… I dropped a vase. It was some Shinobi's" She said, not bothering trying to hide the tremor in her voice. She knew it was partially because she was lying, but her father wouldn't know that "…He was really mad."

"Those people…" Katsuro sighed and shook his head. "Ringo, it was just a vase. That man is clearly out of his mind." She laughed in between tears, imagining he was talking about Madara instead of some ninja she made up "Tomorrow not even you will remember that. … A stupid vase…" He muttered the last part and snickered, making her laugh more. "I'll go make you some tea while you sit down, alright?" Ringo nodded, offering a small smile.

When she heard him mutter something that sounded like "psychotic ninja" she had to laugh again. Her father's words made her heart feel considerably lighter.

Ringo would have to watch out for outbursts like that in the near future. Though she had managed to fool Katsuro that night, she knew he would soon notice she was lying if she kept coming home in tears. She sniffed and wiped her eyes, before sitting down in front of the fireplace.

Crying was a futile exercise. It wasn't easy to control, but if there was someone who certainly would not react to her tears, that person was Madara. If anything, he would only use it to mock her. She reminded herself that those arrangements were for a short time, and that soon enough she'd be back home. And what was she crying about, anyway? He stepped on her – so what? It hadn't really hurt her physically, and though her pride was wounded, none other than Madara knew that. He couldn't even tell others, because they would think he was being irrational. She told herself that he had only done that because he couldn't stand having her on equal footing, and that thought made her smile.

The sound of incessant scribbling on parchments filled the room, in an almost musical rhythm. Madara had awoken motivated that morning, and the paperwork that was usually a dull task for him felt like child's play.

He was working diligently when the door was opened. Though the only person with the habit of coming in without knocking was his brother, there seemed to be a new trend of bursting into his office. So far he had been lenient with the offenders, but he reminded himself to start scolding them more often.

"Madara, we have to talk." Izuna entered the room, but his usual cheerful demeanor didn't follow.

"Ah, there you are." The other replied, trying to contain a smirk. He found it amusing that he was in such a good mode while his brother clearly wasn't. "Decided to help with the work?"

Izuna sat a pile of papers down on the table with a blank expression.

"I've filled several mission orders, read more mission reports, dealt with the paperwork for the bridges in Ryoshima and Shinshu, and have been answering Hitomi's letters. If you don't give her squad more missions she'll lunge at you."

Madara pulled the pile closer and examined it, feeling surprised but nonetheless proud that his little brother had filled all that without him having to ask for it.

"Good." He smiled "But the pile about the supplies is at least twice the size of yours."

"Since all the villagers to the northeast have been dislodged, it is to be expected that something like that would happen sooner or later."

"What are you complaining about? You were for moving them out too."

"I was and I still am." Izuna raised a hand "But we should deal with the Kaguya as soon as possible so they can return to their homes. I think we'll have to join the fight ourselves soon."

Madara muttered something that sounded like an affirmative and turned back to his work.

"Or we could find a way to make them help." The other pondered "I'm sure some of them would be of better use if they worked in their old jobs in different villages, rather than cleaning up your mess."

The clan leader paused, setting his brush down, intertwined his fingers and rest the lower part of his face against his hands.

"So this is about Ringo, then."

"You didn't tell me she was here." Izuna's voice was bitter.

"Her village was in the list." Madara mocked.

"I'm talking about how she was assigned to clean your office." The younger brother hissed, clearly not in the mood for jokes "How did that happened?"

"Who knows." He shrugged "Sanae must have given her the task by accident."

"Really? Because I've heard that you forced Sanae to change her schedule so she wouldn't be able to choose anything she does."

"Who told you that?" Madara's smirk fell.

"Your kinsmen, maybe? And believe me, they aren't saying nice things. "

"The only method of acquiring information more reliable than gossiping is asking questions to stones." He replied with a dismissive gesture.

"I'd agree if I hadn't talked to Sanae and she had confirmed my suspicions." Izuna's expression softened and he sighed "I'm not worried about the clan's gossiping; they all respect you too much to really believe it or at least defy you. I'm worried about your health."

"I think I can deal with some peasant girl, but I appreciate your concern." He replied sarcastically "I have to get back to work now."

"Madara, you look pitiful." His brother said unceremoniously "You have been since the villagers arrived, and now I know why." The other rolled his eyes, but he continued "Just look at you! You don't sleep!"

"I hate to be the one who has to break the news for you, but I don't sleep." Madara waved sheets of paper in front of his brother "In fact, I sleep so little it has become a hobby rather than a basic need, and that's been going on for much longer than those villagers have been here – some girl wouldn't have any effect on it."

"Then why did you insist on giving her the worst possible chores and making it sure that she's close to you?" Izuna rebutted "If you can't let go of the past – In which case I don't blame you – you should make sure that you two won't cross paths, or kill her already."

"That seems so brusque coming from you." Madara joked.

"Perhaps, but I'd rather address anything that threatens you with finality. You're our best man; the clan needs you, and as the second in command, I can't let anything happen to you." The older brother's lips curled downwards, not liking where that conversation was going "Besides, you're my only family left, and I'd rather die than have you-"

"I'm done with this conversation." Madara interrupted and stood up, any previous trace of humor having left his voice "I hope you're in the mood for paperwork, because everything in my table is now your responsibility."

"Running away from your troubles won't make them disappear." Izuna called behind his back, even when the door was slammed shut.

Ringo's tasks were unpleasant. She couldn't tell if they were more or less than she had expected they would be, but she could say with certainty that she didn't like her new schedule.

Stable duty was as bad (if not worse) as she had thought. The smell was bearable, but the amount of strength required for the task was brutal. Even though she had some upper body strength from climbing trees, it became clear to her that cleaning stables was the kind of thing you needed practice with, much like tending trees. She still found a little comfort on the path to the stables, though, as it was buried in a forest, and walking towards it brought her memories of home.

The other tasks weren't too bad, but they weren't fun either.

She had decided that, if she couldn't choose her work conditions, she'd change jobs. Sure, it seemed that the one job that she could have at the moment that paid the most was as a maid, but she wasn't in dire need of money. Maybe she could find a job with one of the merchants that crowded the streets to the compound. She'd be vulnerable to the weather, but at least her shift would be shorter and she was sure her new employer wouldn't step on her.

After the fiasco in Madara's office, she was pleased to notice that, on the following days, he had not been there. She had expected him to show up at any moment – maybe jump from behind his desk to scream at her – but he didn't. She hoped that he would make a habit out of it, but as she entered and saw a dark silhouette at the desk she froze. She was about to get on her knees when she was interrupted.

"That's enough." Madara spoke, waving a hand in a dismissive gesture while using the other to fill papers. For a moment, Ringo thought he was thinking out loud "Forget this childishness and do your job."

She looked at him with suspicion and a hint of annoyance. He made it sound as if cleaning on her knees had been her idea!

"What?" Was all she could say, and she sounded more surprised than she had intended.

"This arrangement is counterproductive." He answered matter-of-factly "If you dawdle on your tasks, you'll only delay mine."

"Dawdle?!" She spat, all of her fear vanishing completely "I wasn't "dawdling"! You wouldn't let me-"

"Watch it." Madara cut her speech short "You should be glad you don't have to clean on your knees anymore, not complaining about it."

"You hypocrite!" The girl yelled, too angry at Madara for twisting her words to notice she had dropped the cleaning supplies and the bucket, sending water down to the wooden floor.

The man's expression soured.

"I'm being kind enough to you as it is. Clean."

Ringo frowned, but decided against questioning her luck and bent down to pick everything up. It was then that she thought that he wouldn't just decide he didn't want to torture her anymore. It was too suspicious.

"Why are you doing this?" She asked, looking up at him.

"Because I want to." He spoke with finality, sitting down at his desk and shuffling some of the papers laying on its surface.

"You go out of your way to make sure I have the worst tasks possible, and then you suddenly decide you don't care about your petty revenge anymore?" She scoffed "I'm not falling for that."

Madara stopped what he was doing and turned to her with a sardonic smirk playing on his lips.

"That doesn't even begin to cover half my idea of what "petty revenge" is." He answered, and though Ringo did her best to keep her face determinate, she felt very wary at his reply "Don't flatter yourself. I have no intention of wasting any more time with you than I already did."

"Why are you talking to me as if you were the victim?" She scoffed

"Why are you?"

"Because I am!" The girl yelled, stupefied, and he 'tsc'ed at her.

"So awfully self-centered..." He sounded regretful.

"Oh, I am the self-centered one?" Ringo's lips curled upwards, but there was nothing happy about her smile. "Are you sure?"

"And loud too. I was almost forgetting that."

"I don't believe it." She shook her head "You are scheming something, that's gotta be it."

"Enough." Madara's tone darkened "I'm done with this foolishness."

"You started it!" She screeched.

"Therefore, nothing more fitting than I end it, no?" The man sneered, sending her a final glare before returning to his work.

Ringo shot him a dirty glance, but he wasn't looking. She decided she should clean and get that day over with as soon as possible so she could go home.

"Besides" she thought bitterly "If Madara is plotting something, I wouldn't be able to stop him."

The minutes ticked by eventlessly. None of the two attempted to engage in another conversation, focusing on their respective tasks instead. Madara only reacted when Ringo approached to wipe his desk and sweep the floor under his chair, standing up to lie on the couch. He seemed to be using the opportunity to take a break.

Once she was finished, Ringo pondered if she should say something or not. She decided that she didn't have to give him any satisfactions and walked to the door.

"Are you finished?" A deep voice rumbled behind her and she had to control the urge to sigh.

"Yes." She answered unenthusiastically, and heard shuffling coming from the seat.

"Turn around." Madara spoke "Look at me when I speak to you."

The girl's shoulders were dropped and her expression bored as she did so. The man scanned her disapprovingly.

"Tell me you are not egocentric enough to think I have no reasons to hate you."

Ringo's eyes widened the slightest bit and her posture stiffened. Of course she wasn't, but she hadn't thought of that in the longest of times. She didn't want to put herself in Madara's shoes, because it was so much easier to simply think of him as a monster. She was aware that a grudge was hardly a good reason to take a certain action, but she wondered how she'd react, had she been in his place, and what she could have done in the past to avoid the current state of things. She could not find a definite answer.

"No…" Her voice was hoarse as she averted her eyes to her feet "I'm not."

The man remained silent, and she was glad he didn't press on the matter.

"Do…" She drew a shuddery breath "Do you hate me?"

The air felt thick as she waited for an answer, and she was sure the time was passing three times slower than it usually was.

"No" He spoke thoughtfully, and she almost sighed with relief "Hating you would be a waste." She wondered of what "But don't think I regard you in the same way I used to."

She nodded. That was not a problem.

"So… about my schedule-"

"Your schedule remains the same, and if you wish to enjoy the remainder of your day, I suggest you go home." His voice was somewhere between amusement and annoyance, and for a moment she saw him as she had known him when they were younger, how he often treated her like a child who liked to pester him but was simultaneously awed by most of the things he did or the stories he told.

And that was really what she used to be then.

Ringo nodded and left, half expecting Madara to call her back. When he didn't, she closed the door slowly.

She sighed almost imperceptibly and walked away.

It had been a few weeks since Madara revoked his senseless order, and Ringo was now convinced that he wasn't scheming against her. She had no idea what had caused the sudden change, but she wouldn't question her luck.

In spite of this, Ringo saw no problem in trying to make conversations, even if it meant talking to the walls. Often times he would just let her speak while going about with his business. She suspected he didn't even pay attention to her on these occasions, but she wasn't complaining. The only real down side of these arrangements was that he suddenly started pointing flaws on her cleaning. For someone with such a messy workspace, he sure could be meticulous.

"You are Ringo, correct?"

Ringo turned around from her task and came face to face with a tall man. He looked sad, but she figured it was his normal expression.

"Yes?"

"Izuna-sama has requested to see you."

"Izuna? Why?" She hadn't seen Izuna in years. It was strange that she met Madara on her first day working, but she had not once even thought of Izuna being there – they had been friends, hadn't they? She felt guilty.

"I do not know." The man's expression didn't change in the slightest, as he turned around and started walking "Please, follow me."

The girl wanted to strike a conversation, even if just to satisfy her curiosity as to whether he was a messenger or not, but decided against it. Her guide didn't look like he was very fond of talking.

She was led through a number of corridors and directed to a door that looked just like any other in the area.

The room, too, was normal. It was definitely a bedroom, even though it didn't look like it belonged to an ordinary soldier. It was quite spacious and in the wall opposite to the entrance there was a sliding door leading to an inside garden. It was rather fancy, but she had assumed that the chambers of someone in Izuna's position would have been more protected, with thick stone walls and small barred windows, fit only for a dungeon. Instead, the chamber was light and airy, and she wouldn't mind spending time in a place like that.

"Ringo." A voice called from a corner and she turned to see Izuna – much taller than she remembered –, sitting at a table and smiling at her. It was a genuine smile and she was glad that the first time she saw him in so long he was being so friendly. "I would invite you to sit down, but I don't plan on taking much of your time so… well, help yourself if you want."

"Izuna, is this your room?" She asked approaching the table, while her eyes surveyed her surroundings enthusiastically.

"I knew that the people of your village would be dislodged to the compound, but I really hadn't thought about the possibility of meeting you." He sighed. Even though the man's tone wasn't hostile, Ringo recoiled, suddenly feeling uneasy after her attempt at small-talk had been adverted so quickly "Funny, no? I was surprised when I found out that you had been assigned to clean Madara's office. I know he treated you poorly at first, and that was to be expected, but fortunately things have become better."

"Because Madara has made sure that you will be the one to clean his office, I'm sure it's for reasons other than your abilities as a maid, and since he's treating you like a human being now, we shouldn't have any problems. I really do hope we'll get along for as long as you're here, so I'm not too happy about what I'm about to say. I am sorry, but if this sounds like a threat, it's because it is." The girl flinched, but that didn't deter his monologue "I'd advise you to do anything he tells you. Because he's the leader of this clan and my dearest brother, his health and happiness are my top priority. If I find out that your presence is affecting my top priority negatively rather than positively, I promise I will destroy the things you hold dear one by one until you get it right." He finished with a sound akin to a hiss, and Ringo would have given a step back if her legs weren't shaking so much.

She was sure things were going so well with Madara; there was no way he'd have complained to Izuna, was there? Spending time with the clan head was starting to feel less like a punishment and more like a reward – and now she felt as if she was being offered as a sacrifice to a carnivorous beast as in one of the stories her mother used to tell her. Izuna sounded as if he had a good mind to strap her to an altar so a hungry wolf could ravage her intestines.

"I'm sorry." He sighed, and she was utterly surprised at the change in his tone "I… Just go back to your work."

He sent her out with a dismissive gesture of his hand, and she high-tailed out of there.

Ringo rubbed a single spot in the cheery wood desk absent-mindedly. She had been thinking about her conversation with Izuna – if that could be considered that – so intently, that she didn't even notice when someone else entered the room and came to stand right behind her.

"I think that's enough." A mocking voice said, making her spin around.

Madara was standing there with a smirk on his face, as if her cleaning that specific spot compulsively was a funny sight.

"I wasn't really thinking…" She replied with a sheepish smile

"And when do you ever?" He asked, though from his tone it was obvious he was joking.

"When you're not looking." She beamed.

The man didn't answer and merely sat at his desk, frowning slightly at the pile of papers, before taking a few in his hands and examining them.

"Madara" She uttered, testing the waters. Since he didn't give any signs of being annoyed, she decided to poise her question "Are we friends?"

"Of course not." He answered in a heartbeat, not turning away from his work "You just happen to be a half-decent source of amusement. And it's Madara-sama for you."

"So I'm your jester now?" Ringo smirked, stopping with her work.

"And maid." He corrected.

"Do I get twice the pay?" She asked with a hopeful grin.

"You get the honor of working for your beloved leader, and that's already more than you deserve." Madara smirked, even though his eyes were still focused on the papers on his desk. She wondered how he could talk to her and fill documents at the same time.

"I would rather have twice the pay." She muttered.

"If you don't start doing your job you'll get no payment, and I'll throw you out through the window." The man answered cheerfully, and Ringo turned to the only window in the room. It was large, almost occupying the entire wall, but she had never seen it opened before. The door was always closed too, and she was surprised Madara hadn't suffocated in that place yet.

"Why do you stay locked in here?"

"Not locked." He rebutted, and Ringo looked back at him curiously "I never lock the door or the window. Clean."

Ringo immediately crouched to roll the rug so she could sweep the floor, but her questions were not over yet.

"No, I meant, how can you stay in here when everything is so dark? You have to read, doesn't it bother you?"

Madara didn't answer her question, but she was sure he had heard it.

"We used to be friends." She murmured, not really thinking about what she was saying. She just wanted to talk.

"How old are you?" He snapped, dropping the papers and turning to the startled girl, and his glare made her feel as if he was piercing her flesh with just his eyes. "Why are you so adamant about the concept of "friendship"? If you want to form bonds with people so bad, at least choose some that are reliable."

"My friends are reliable!" She protested (even though she had no idea what adamant meant). "I love them!"

"Would you die for them?" Madara asked. Though his voice was calm, his expression was of a scowl.

"Of course!"

"No you wouldn't." He leaned back on his chair and she growled at him. How dared he say to which extent she loved others? "And even if you would – and you wouldn't – they wouldn't die for you. You'll see just how trustworthy your friends really are as you grow older."

"Oh, shut up! You're acting like-"

"Get out." Those two words, couple with Madara's tone made her freeze, for reasons she couldn't explain. The only answer she could muster was a startled "What?!"

"Leave." He pointed to the door "Before I put you out myself."

Ringo had no idea how things escalated that quickly. One moment they were joking, and the other they started arguing and now he was mad at her.

Remembering Izuna's words, she paled.

"W-wait, I-"

"Is your brain so deficient you can't understand a simple order?" He sneered, interrupting her stuttered speech "Out!"

Ringo didn't even bother gathering her cleaning supplies and ran off, not daring to look behind.

She had made Madara really mad. She tried to remember exactly what she had said that caused him to snap like that, and finally realized she had told him to shut up. Had she felt that comfortable around him that she thought it was appropriate to tell him to shut up? The only person whom she had ever said that to before was Michio, and even when she was furious, she never said that to anyone else.

So why did she have to say that to Madara, especially when Izuna had threatened her just the other day? What if he found out? She was sure Madara wouldn't nag about her, but Izuna was bound to notice his change of temperament and blame her for it. And he wouldn't be wrong.

No, that was completely ridiculous! She had done nothing to cause his initial outburst. Even if she hadn't told him to shut up, he'd still have been mad. She just made an innocent comment, and Madara had reacted explosively for no good reason. It could have happened to anyone else.

Ringo pouted.

He started it.

Ringo extended her open palm and looked up with a frown. She could smell rain.

It baffled others that she and her father could predict the approaching of a storm, but that had always seemed like second nature to her.

"Riki, it's going to start raining soon." She commented, turning to her companion.

That very morning, she had decided to use the day to look for a different job. Though she didn't like the idea of spending her only free day of the week doing something like that, she reckoned it was for the better. Maybe Madara could change her schedule, but he certainly had no authority to force her to work as a maid.

She was immensely glad when she met her friend outside by chance, and when she told him what she was doing, he offered to go along. That would make the trip a lot more fun.

"Really?" He asked, furrowing his brows at the blue sky "Well, you're always right about that, Rin-chan."

The young woman beamed and skipped ahead of him.

"Thank you for coming with me!" She sang, turning to him while skipping backwards.

"Hey, watch it or you're going to trip!" Riki grinned, and she shook her head.

"I have eyes on my back!"

"I hope we'll have more luck now." Ringo smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes.

They had spent the whole morning walking from store to store, but none seemed to be interested on hiring her – or if they were, they didn't have enough money to pay for an extra helping hand. The variety of jobs in the village wasn't the greatest, and since Ringo had no special skills and an uncanny inability with numbers, the only thing she seemed to be good for was cleaning.

"I'm sure we will." She nodded "And we could use the rain as incentive to get things done sooner!"

The girl was still walking backwards, as they were in the less crowded part of the village, just outside the walls surrounding the compound, so there was plenty of space for the two of them, so much so, she didn't even bother paying attention to her surroundings, and the only warning she had was Riki's gasp, before she crashed against something.

She was about to tumble backwards, but someone gripped her forearm and helped her in place, albeit not very gently. Ringo would have been angry if a stranger touched her like that, but since she was the one who caused the accident, she turned around and was about to apologize to the person when she saw who it was.

Because of course it would be him.

Madara released her arm, and Ringo couldn't help but notice his smirk. He seemed very pleased with himself.

"Afternoon." He said, his tone jeering, turned to Riki and then did something that made the girl's jaw drop.

He barked.

Though she knew he was rude and got a strange pleasure out of making fun of others, Ringo was bewildered at how he had decided to "greet" her friend. For one, it was incredibly childish, and she wouldn't have expected him to resort to that, and second, why was he smiling and joking as if he was close to them? Wasn't he mad at her just the other day? What could have made him change his temper in less than twenty-four hours? And that reminded her of the other times when he had changed his demeanor towards her in a matter of seconds.

Was he fucking bipolar?!

"What are you doing?!" She screamed, having to hold herself to keep from slapping her hand over her mouth. Why did she always have to be so loud?

"I was walking when you bumped into me. And you? I trust you didn't go out just to lunge at people." He raised an eyebrow

"I wasn't-!"

"Ringo, let's go." Riki interrupted her, jerking his head backwards as if motioning for them to come back the way they came. That did seem like the best course of action now that they had been interrupted.

"Why don't you stay quiet like a good watch dog while your owner is busy?" Madara reprimanded with a wrinkling of his nose.

Ringo had expected her friend to simply scoff and turn away, because arguing back was unlike him, and so she was surprised when he did just that.

"It doesn't matter if you're now the clan's head or what, you are not entitled to treat people in whatever way you like." The girl was amazed at how he managed to speak so calmly. She was used to standing up for him ever since they were children, so she had no idea he could be so eloquent when he wanted to. Despite the change in his behavior, Madara didn't seem to be affected by it.

"It speaks!" He said with mock surprise.

"Can you at least tell me why you treat me like crap?" Riki inquired "Or do you act like that with everyone?"

"Only people who make me ashamed of being a man." Madara's tone and expression were now business-like "Or who don't realize their presence is no longer required. Double that and there you are."

"Nevermind, we're leaving." Ringo decided it would be better if she stepped in, and she had already given her back to the two men when one of them sighed.

"And here I was thinking of changing your schedule…"

"What?" She turned around instantly and stared up at Madara. "What of my schedule?"

"I'm willing to negotiate your work conditions with no decreases in your wage." He explained with that stupid smirk plastered on his face. There had to be a catch… "But that's a onetime offering. You can take it now or not take it at all."

Ringo hesitated, pausing to think about it. If she could keep her job but change the tasks – especially the ones involving Madara – that would be ideal.

"Should I take that as no?"

"Wait!" She cried before he could move "…I wouldn't have to clean your office then?"

"WHAT?" Riki yelled and she flinched, feeling very, very stupid. None of the people of her village knew about her tasks up until now, and this was how she wished it would have remained.

"We can arrange that." Madara gave a court nod and then gestured to the wall surrounding the compound "Shall we?"

"Why were you cleaning his office?" Riki asked before she could reply "Does your father know about that?"

"Riki I-" The girl's eyes widened "I… Don't tell him, okay?"

"He doesn't? Why didn't you tell him?"

"There was no need to! Look" She put a hand over his shoulder. "I've got this. I didn't say anything because there was nothing to say."

"You'd have told us anyway!" The young man argued "It's not like you to hide stuff."

"I'm not-"

"I'll be taking my leave, then." Madara spoke casually, walking by them.

"I'm coming!" The girl yelled, then turned back to her friend "Don't tell father, ok? It's not that big of a deal."

"Not that-?!"

"Please." Her tone was more firm than pleading, and that seemed to send an electric current through Riki's body. His expression became bitter, but he nodded nonetheless.

She gave him a sheepish smile before turning around and running to catch up with Madara.

"What's your issue?" She hissed once she was within his ear-range.

"You're lucky the streets are empty, because I wouldn't go through the ridicule of being yelled at by a maid otherwise."

Ringo flushed and examined her surroundings, to make sure there were no witnesses other than Riki. She wasn't concerned about Madara's reputation as much as she was concerned about hers. Not that she had any, but she'd rather it remained like that.

"Wait, are we going to your office?" She asked

"Do you have your schedule with you?"

"No…" She admitted, and he shook his head

"Then Sanae's. I don't keep archives on the maids." The girl mouthed an "O". That made sense.

"It's going to be really awkward if I walk beside you, isn't it?"

"Then walk behind me. You know the way."

Ringo nodded slowly, letting herself fall behind. Madara sounded somewhat dejected, and that quite frankly creeped her out. It was probably just her mind paying tricks on her, but just the idea of Madara being depressed made her feel very insecure all of the sudden.

As they neared the stronghold, the streets became more and more crowded, and Ringo tried her best to avoid looking like she was following him. She noticed that most people greeted Madara when he walked by, and he responded to them with a nod of acknowledgment.

She had learned enough about the people who lived in that village to know that they respected him a lot more than the people in her hometown did. He hardly ever was a topic of discussion between them, and when he was, only of the older villagers' conversations. There, however, he was one of the most popular subjects, and people respected him a lot – even if that didn't mean he was impervious to being the source of snarky jokes once in a while.

When she arrived at Sanae's office, Madara was standing in front of the door, his hand millimeters away from the surface and his head almost touching the wood, as if he was trying to listen to what was happening on the inside. He suddenly frowned and opened the door, entering the room, and she followed suit.

The place was empty, and Ringo was surprised to find him raking through the drawers in Sane's desk, as if looking for something.

"You don't know where things are?"

"It's not my office."

"Can you really look through her stuff?"

Madara didn't answer, but the silence told everything she needed to know: Even though he shouldn't, he'd do it anyway because none would try to stop him.

"Make yourself useful and help me." He ordered, and Ringo ran to his side and started rummaging through one of the shelves.

They spent the next few minutes examining the papers in the room, until someone knocked on the door. Ringo thought it was strange, since the entrance was wide open, but when she heard a voice singing 'Sanae-chaaaaaan?' she realized that the purpose behind that action was of affection rather than respect.

A man emerged from behind the door and Ringo almost gawked at him. He was huge, as tall as her father, if not taller. His dark hair was graying, but full and wild, and Ringo concluded he was on his early fifties, not much older than Katsuro, but unlike him, the man was large, with broad-shoulders, and looked strong enough to carry a horse on his back. But the thing that scared her the most was his predatory grin, and she instinctively hid behind Madara.

"Madara-sama?" The man furrowed his brows in confusion, but his smile remained unaltered "What are you doing here?"

"Isao, you know how Sanae organizes everything, don't you?"

"Yeah, the basics, at least." The man nodded.

"Then help me find some archives."

"Of course!" Isao spoke cheerfully, finally entering the office, and Ringo sucked in as much air as she could in one breath. Even in the day she had been in that same room with four other people, she didn't feel as suffocated as she felt at the moment. There was no hostility emanating from the man, but his presence alone was overbearing, even more than Madara's, and she wanted nothing more than to get out of that place. "What are you looking for exactly?"

"Her schedule." The clan leader stepped aside, ruining her cover. Her blood ran cold when the giant's eyes fell upon her.

"Hello." Isao leaned closer, giving her a smile she didn't like one bit "And what might your name be, dear?"

"Ringo." She replied, surprised at how fast the answer came from her mouth.

"Ringo?" The man's eyes and smile widened "But my, that's such a cute name!"

She reddened at his words.

"Pay him no heed." Madara advised her, though he was looking at the other shinobi "Isao doesn't seem to be able to keep his mouth shut."

"Oh, forgive me, Madara-sama." The man looked genuinely sorry, before assuming a mischievous expression "I will not intrude in your… business."

From the little she could see of Madara's face, he looked very annoyed.

"But…" Isao paused, and looked at Ringo "When your schedule was last modified? Sanae keeps them in chronological order."

Ringo raked through her brain for the time, but she wasn't of exactly how long it had been.

"Five weeks and six days." Madara answered for her.

Isao looked through some folders on a shelf and brought out a slip of paper. He eyed the paper and smiled at his success, but as he examined it longer, his expression changed. His eyes were fixated on the clan leader, and he eyed him intently, before shooting her a brief glance. That whole situation made her feel extremely conscious.

"There you are, dear." He suddenly extended the paper to her, but when she was about to grab it, he pulled it out of her reach "Say, I know you're not from here, but you look awfully familiar. Have we ever met before?"

That man was absolutely strange to her, and she was sure she would have remembered having seen someone like him.

"Is this what you say to every woman you meet?" Madara asked, raising an eyebrow, and Ringo almost flinched when she caught the meaning behind his words.

"Oh, no!" Isao laughed soundly "I was being honest! But I promise I will try harder next time, Madara-sama."

Because he was busy with Madara, Ringo used the opportunity to quickly snatch her schedule from the man's hand and crush it at her side, afraid he would try to take it back, but to her surprise he looked amused.

"Isn't she something?" He smiled, and she immediately regretted drawing his attention back to her.

"Thank you for your help." Madara spoke somewhat brusquely, and with a single step he was out of the room.

"It's always a pleasure." Isao didn't seem to notice – or to care – about the other's tone.

"Come." She didn't have to be told twice.

He walked quickly, and Ringo made sure to stay close behind. She didn't care if other people saw them so close; she just wanted to get as far away from the other man as fast as she could.

Once in his office, he instructed her to take the chair in front of the desk and wait, and so she did. She felt somewhat smug being allowed to sit down like a guest, especially when she was so used to the ground.

It didn't take Madara long to finish filling the schedule, and she was pleased with the outcome. Her tasks now consisted of helping to tend to the orchard on Saturdays and tending to some interior gardens two days of the week, and she didn't have to work in the stables anymore; she was to clean some of the bedchambers of the east wing everyday and help with the cooking four times a week; She still had to scrub the floors of the entrance hall and several corridors, and now also had to help organizing the food storage, but those were the last of her concerns. Now she didn't have to clean his office anymore.

She was only so happy until she realized that she wasn't alone in the world. Because every spot needed to be filled, when someone's schedule was altered, at least one other person's would have the same fate. Since Madara changed hers alone, that could only mean that Sanae would have to rearrange other people's schedules to accommodate her.

She looked up, to find Madara examining her reaction. When he saw her less-than-pleased expression he grinned sardonically.

"What? Did you like your old schedule better?" He was obviously joking, but Ringo couldn't bring herself to answer appropriately. She did like the tasks he had assigned to her, but she didn't feel comfortable just taking them.

He seemed to have noticed that she was serious, as his expression darkened.

"You mean to tell me you're not taking it?" He waited a few seconds before continuing, sounding more impatient "Do you intend on wasting my time? Or…" His glare was so unbearable she turned away "Are you really just wasting my time?"

"I…" She stammered "I have to go." She stood up from her chair and tried to run towards the door, but she was immediately seized by the forearm and spun around.

Madara's gaze on her was heavy and he was far too close for comfort. With his free hand he forced her palm open, shoved the slip of paper in it, and then forced it closed again.

"This is your new schedule. You will take it." His tone left no room for argument "In eight days I'll be leaving to deal with the Kaguya for once and for all. We'll leave before noon, and I want to see you before I go. I'll be in my office; show up at seven."

She stared at him in disbelief. Just from where did all that come from? Why did he want to talk to her then? Couldn't he do that now?

"Did I make myself clear?" he asked, and she nodded curtly, even though she was unsure.

He let go of her and she gave a step back, looking down at her feet.

"Can I go now?"

"Yes."

She nodded once more and left, refusing to make eye contact.

Why was it that every time she was around Madara something like this would happen? Things would go from fantastic to hectic in a matter of seconds, and for no apparent reason. She felt drained.

Alright, she would meet him in eight days. She had no idea what could possibly require her presence, especially in a week and not that very moment, but she didn't want to ask him. She simply had to accept that Madara would often go crazy for no reason, and that trying to make sense of whatever he did in those moments was pointless.

She walked back home, briefly thinking about Riki. Did he go home after he left? Did he really keep her secret? Ringo wondered if she shouldn't have just given up on working at the stronghold just so she wouldn't have to go through all that trouble.

She wondered what he could possibly want with her.

She found Riki in the outskirts of the village, just outside the house he and his family used. It was bigger than hers, but it was understandable since there were more people.

"Hi." She said approaching him, and was worried when he didn't respond at first.

"Oh, hi." Riki greeted back when she sat by his side at the porch. He didn't seem too enthusiastic.

"Look!" She searched through her pockets and drew out her schedule, showing it to him proudly.

"Ah, you did change it." He nodded.

"Well, of course. I said I would."

"I was thinking, was your schedule too bad before?" He asked frowning "I mean, besides the obvious."

"It was. I even had stable duty."

"They have a stable?!" Riki seemed genuinely surprised before shaking his head "Nevermind; How did you get stable duty? If I knew they had something like that…"

"I don't know." She shrugged "Maybe they got confused or something. Maybe from my name they thought I was a guy!" Ringo then laughed, but her friend only shook his head.

"Why did he want to change your schedule now? Why not before?" Riki's eyes narrowed, more dangerously than she ever thought they could. But maybe that was just her mind playing tricks on her.

"I don't know!" She replied defensively "Why would I have asked him?"

"You really shouldn't, but I just thought he was acting strange."

"He always acts strange, Riki." Ringo reminded him patiently. That was something she could state with certainty.

"No, I mean… I didn't like the way he acted, I didn't like the way he looked at you. It was just weird." Ringo felt a very unpleasant shiver go through her body.

"Well, that's ok, since I won't be seeing him anymore." She lied "No harm done!"

"Really?" Riki asked "What happened when you were cleaning his office?"

"Nothing." She felt her hands trembling, mostly of guilt "He was almost never there. He'd usually ignore me when he was there, or be kind of rude. No scars!" That much was true, and she felt somewhat pleased that at least something she was saying wasn't a blatant lie.

He stared at her, and for a moment she thought he had seen right through her, when he sighed at last.

"Okay then. I won't tell Katsuro about it." Ringo's face brightened up.

"Thank you, Riki! Really, there was nothing to worry about!"

"Well, I hope so. At least you won't be seeing him again."

She smiled nervously. She really wanted to confess she had lied.

"So… I guess I'll be going now?" The girl half asked half affirmed.

"Wait." He stopped her "We haven't spent time with you and your father lately so… would you two like to come for dinner?"

"Of course! But wouldn't your mother have to cook more food?"

"That's ok." He laughed nervously when she looked at him disapprovingly "I've made more money than I thought I would, so we're not short on food. I can help her with cooking too; since it's just two people, there should be no problem."

"Eh… Can you really cook?" She asked with a twitchy smile.

"Nope! But I'm a fast learner!" He sounded too proud for her liking.

"Listen, I'll tell father and we'll show up earlier to help with the cooking, ok?" She told him, standing up to leave.

"That would be better." He nodded and waved, as she smiled and walked away. "See you soon!"

Since that day, Ringo hadn't seen Madara even once. Though she was happy to be away from his constant change of temperament, she couldn't deny that her routine felt considerably duller. Maybe his moodiness was the reason for her routine being somewhat more exciting, but she supposed she couldn't have everything.

She knocked on the door and didn't have to wait long before a voice from inside told her to come in.

Ringo entered the room, closing the door behind her. She watched as Madara inspected his weapons, no doubt checking if they would be enough for the battle that was to come.

"Hello." She greeted, drawing his attention to her. He waved a hand, as if saying she should get inside.

However, he didn't make any attempt to explain why he had called her.

"Say, have you ever fought a Kaguya before?" Ringo tried to strike a conversation.

"Yes, a couple of times."

"Ah, then I'm guessing it'll be easy for you." She pressed on "Really boring too."

"That I doubt. They don't fight according to norms…" He trailed off, pausing to take off the glove clothing one of his hands "Come see this."

The peasant approached him and eyed the skin. There were a few scratches here and there, but what sent a shiver down her spine were the stitches that ran across his palm in a crescent shape.

"I approached one I thought had died and then he launched at me." Madara explained, eying the scar with something that almost looked like pride "The viper wouldn't let go even after he really was dead."

"He… bit you?" She asked, somewhat shocked. He saw the disbelief in her face and smirked.

Ringo didn't notice, though, as her eyes were drawn to the wound. She reached out to it instinctively, but the man pulled his hand back and eyed her warily.

"I'm sorry." She muttered and adverted her gaze "Does it still hurt?"

"No." He put the glove back on, his tone clearly stating that that conversation was over.

He didn't say anything, and even seemed to have forgotten about her presence. She had to think of something to say.

"So… When you defeat the Kaguya I can go home?" It was the first thing that came to her mind. That was just a conversation starter, like asking "How are you?", so she was shocked when he gave her a negative answer. What did he mean; if the Kaguya weren't a threat anymore, why couldn't she go back home?

"Before you can go back the villages have to be scouted to make sure they are still safe and habitable, and that could take a month. If there are problems, we'll have to fix things, and that means more time and more money." He sighed, and she couldn't help but notice how exhausted he looked.

"Oh." She nodded "That makes sense… And when are you going to come back?"

"With luck, in a couple of weeks" He then grimaced "But it could take up to two months. And assuming I won't have to solve the villages' problems."

Madara turned his attention back to his belongings, checking bags and pouches, some containing objects she had never seen before.

She didn't know what else to say, nor did she want to leave right now, so she sat in the couch. She didn't know if she was allowed to, but she'd do it anyway. If he had a problem with that, he should have said before.

After a few silent minutes, Madara finished with what he was doing, and turned around. Instead of telling her to get up from the sofa he walked to the opposite end and sat down as well.

"May I open the window?" Ringo asked as soon as she felt the weight upon the seat shifting.

"You may not."

"But it's good!" She argued "mold loves dark and humid places."

"My office is not humid." Madara spat "And if it were, they only person to blame would be you."

"Please, just let me draw the curtains!" She pleaded, joining her hands and leaning closer to him.

"Fine!" He conceded, clearly irritated "…Spoiled brat."

The girl frowned, offended at his choice of words, but stood up and walked to the window anyway.

The sky was a beautiful blue color, even at that time of the morning. The streets were just beginning to fill with people, and the leaves in the trees rustled with the wind. She longed to feel the breeze, but was afraid Madara wouldn't like it.

"Madara, may I-"

"Do what you want." He interrupted, and Ringo felt bad for doing what she wanted in spite of him. His lips were pressed together and curled downwards, while he covered his eyes with one hand.

"Am I annoying you?" She offered with a small smile the man didn't get to see.

"Yes."

"Do you want me to leave?"

"No."

"Then what do you want?"

"Just stop asking questions." He waved one of his hands in a gesture she couldn't identify, but it had seemed pretty rude.

Ringo huffed and opened the window to let the glorious breeze cool down the room and run through her hair, tangling it. She wondered how Madara could shut himself in that place every day and keep sane. Then, again, maybe he wasn't exactly sane.

She turned around and watched with mild interest as the man stretched his arms. His eyes were still closed, but his expression had softened considerably. She noticed that his side of the couch wasn't being illuminated by the sunlight, but the one she had been on was.

"You're thinking of something." She affirmed, while sitting down on the opposite end of the sofa.

"How did you get to this conclusion?" His voice was sarcastic, making her shake her head.

"And you don't want to tell me about it."

"Obviously."

"I could help! If there's something troubling you, you can tell me! I'm good at these things!"

Madara chuckled darkly, and she flinched, wondering what she had said that had been funny.

"Oh, look who cares about me now." There was laughter in his voice, but it was not of mirth. "What makes you think I'm troubled?"

"You've been acting strange, like there's too much on your mind."

"For how long have I been acting strange?" He asked, and paused before saying her name, as if instructing her to answer.

That caught her by surprise. Ringo couldn't remember a single time when she had heard him say her name, as he usually called her with an 'oi' or a 'hey'.

"I… I don't really know. A couple weeks, I guess." She replied, looking to the hands on her lap.

Madara nodded, uncovering his eyes, but still not looking at her.

They remained like this for some time, staring in opposite directions for what seemed like an eternity, until Madara broke the silence.

"It's time." He declared, quickly scanning his office "Or I'll be late to meet with the rest of the army."

"Ah, okay." Ringo replied, not daring to look at him.

"You look unhappy." He joked, standing up and gathering his belongings.

"I'm not. I'm just… thinking." She answered, smiling at how silly her words sounded "Anyway, good luck with the Kaguya. And…don't get bit again!" The girl added cheerfully, trying to brighten the mood.

"Only an idiot would make the same mistake twice." He replied "Are you an idiot?"

Ringo would have been offended by his question, but she wasn't. There was no malice or mockery behind it; it was literally just a question, and instead of being mad, she found herself pondering over what to answer.

She never thought herself to be a genius. She had her moments, but she reckoned she acted stupid with the same frequency. She was… probably just normal.

"I don't think so." She said, looking at her feet in embarrassment. She found her own words hard to believe "…I hope not."

"So do I." Madara mused out loud and came to stand in front of her.

Under his gaze, Ringo wiggled unconsciously in her seat.

It was obvious that he wanted her to say something, but she didn't know what it was.

"Good luck." Was the best she could come up with.

"Really?" He snorted, seemed somewhat amused by her words "Is this the best you can do?"

"Why did you call me here?" She was getting fed up with whatever game it was he was playing. "What do you want from me?"

His expression changed again and he leaned closer. The girl suddenly felt very aware when one of his hands landed just beside her head. He only stared at her for a few seconds before smirking, royally confusing her.

"You are so slow." He said, pausing at each word before narrowing his eyes "Then why is it…"

Ringo instinctively pressed her back against the seat and stared him in the eyes, trying to predict what his next move would be.

Madara examined her reaction with (perhaps) curiosity then took his hand away and leaned backwards, a smirk still plastered on his face.

"I will take your "luck", then." He said and stepped away from her "But I will have to ask you to leave."

Ringo furrowed her brows in confusion and he sighed.

"I am leaving, Ringo. You can't stay in my office after I'm gone."

"Oh, you're right!" She exclaimed, rising from her seat with a startled jump. "Sorry."

He shook his head and motioned towards the exit with it.

The peasant quickly crossed the portal and waited outside as Madara did the same, albeit not with the same haste.

He closed the door behind him – not locking, she noticed – and sent her an unidentifiable glance before turning and walking down the hallway.

That was a strange goodbye, and Ringo would feel uncomfortable if things just ended like that. Then she felt silly for that thought. What things? There were no things, and most certainly nothing was ending. She wondered where those thoughts came from.

"I know you're going to kick their butts!" She called out without thinking (though she was immensely glad there was none else nearby).

Madara turned around, sporting the most expressive face she had seen him using since… well, ever. His brows were furrowed and his face was split by a disbelieving grin.

"How old are you? Just say asses."

She looked around, biting her lower lip.

"Their asses." She corrected with a wry smile "Happy now?"

"Not at all." He turned around, still grinning and walked down the corridor.

Ringo stood in the same place until she couldn't see his retreating form anymore, then leaned against the nearest wall.

He wasn't happy? Though she had cursed, and showed up in his office, and taken the new schedule even when she felt bad for it, and… and everything. In the end, she had done everything he wanted (albeit not always happily), and yet Madara wasn't happy at all?

Well, neither was she.

Ringo felt her eyes prickle, so she covered them with a shaky hand, while clutching her apron close to her chest with the other one.

Please don't take long.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~xD~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

My impression of Madara: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Now, this is mostly just a collection of things that happened, so the time line is messed up. The purpose of this epilogue (freaking long for an epilogue, if I might add) was to soften chapter 12. I think it progressed too fast, but at the same time, if I made the whole thing develop in the proper pace, I would have to make a bunch of other chapters and I ain't doing that. I think it feels like a shoujo chapter or something; it doesn't please me too much, although it was fun to write.

And now… I shall beg for REVIEWS to whoever may be reading this, because I'm sad not many people were interested in talking about the story. I'm not even asking for a full-review; just a commentary on what you thought of the story overall would be really nice. So, if you're so kind, REVIEW PLEASE~ I know that since this is the last chapter I can't threaten anybody, saying that I will not post until I receive a certain amount of reviews, but I would never do that anyways; first because I think it's bitchy, and second because I know that my story wasn't that popular.

On a second thought, it's probably not as popular as I would have liked because I didn't over sexualize Madara and wrote some lemons. I've nothing against lemons per se, but I noticed that as long as you make Madara a perv in those love stories, you can get away with pretty much anything. I talked to a friend and she agreed that it seems that texts with no paragraphs, bad grammar, no logical sequence and poor character development can be forgiven with just two words: MADARA TARADÃO. Q issu jovens? (Ah, I do so hope you aren't Brazilian…)

Enough ranting! There are, after all, good fanfictions about Madara that do receive a good amount of attention, so maybe I just didn't appeal too much (man, I'm so passive-aggressive!)

Many thanks to the people who helped me out: One of my friends, who dutifully read and commented on all the chapters so far and helped me with a scene I was having trouble with (If you're reading this, lady, as soon as I get home I'll show up at your house with flowers and chocolate, Sua linda!); Another friend, who even though mocks me for my infatuation with Madara, has given me suggestions for some kissing scenes and helped me figure out how much of a Mary-Sue my OC is; Yet another friend (who I think died drowning in textbooks; a moment of silence, please *silence*) who beta-read the first chapter and gave me suggestions for the epilogue; Aaand last but not least, my pops, who read Katsuro's story and gave it his approval, even though he kept asking me "what that shinobi crap was all about." And, of course, Kishi-san, because he's great and whatnot.

Thank you everyone who read, favorited, followed, and even more thanks to those who commented. Also, you guys gotta stop reviewing when logged off or make a profile already, so I can send some of you proper messages! *shakes fist*

Anyhow... Yeah that's all.

If you came this far, Thanks for reading :)

(Also, does it make any sense for Madara to have a couch? I mean, he had to have a notion of genetic engineering to be able to infuse Hashirama's genes in his own, but, dear lord, was the world at the time so technologically advanced they had couches?! I have no idea, but now they do.)