Glass Trinity, Chapter 11: Bonds of Fate
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
There was no courtesy between men who had nothing to say to each other. Sasuke dashed at Saizō, while Satto and his Uzumaki soldiers spread out to handle Saizō's teammates. Sasuke began with two exploding kunai, throwing one directly at Saizō and the other behind himself. The tags detonated, and Sasuke jumped high into the air. Saizō was neither in his original position nor in the genjutsu trap Sasuke knew from experience he liked to set at the start of battles. The sky opened in a wet smile in front of Sasuke's face and dripped something black and viscous, darker than the night. Saizō's pale hand reached out from the illusory dimensional warp.
"You know me so well," his voice echoed in Sasuke's ear.
Drawing two tantō from his hips, Sasuke channeled chakra through his body and spun, faster and faster. The daggers' edges sliced the wind around him, powered by elemental chakra, and Saizō withdrew his genjutsu. Sasuke landed on his feet.
"But I know you, too," the real Saizō said.
Sasuke didn't give him an inch, knowing that time was Saizō's greatest advantage in battle. Time to think, to prepare, to sneak up on his target under the cover of darkness. There could be no rules when fighting him, and no victory was dirty. Sasuke readied his daggers and prepared to change his course at a moment's notice. If he could just get close enough to Saizō to engage him in taijutsu, he could win this.
Saizō ran to meet him, but as he drew closer, he changed into something else. His smile widened, reaching his ears and opening up to reveal a gaping maw with rows of serrated teeth and a salivating, red tongue. His hands grew into talons, and he slashed at Sasuke. Fighting the urge to recoil—it's only an illusion!—Sasuke rammed his daggers into the creature's forehead. Blood spurted from the wound, but Sasuke didn't let up. His momentum carried him high into the air once more, and he quickly ran through a round of hand seals.
He rubbed his hands together and birthed flames and burning ash, which grew to an enormous size as he flew. They coiled together in the shape of a fat, serpentine creature, which crawled through the air toward Saizō's apparition. The sentient cinders slammed into the apparition and collided with the earth, burrowing underground. The superheated air was enough to break Saizō's genjutsu and reveal his true location—directly behind Sasuke with a kunai ready to slit his throat.
Sasuke twisted and grabbed the kunai with his bare hand, ignoring the pain as it slashed his palm, and yanked as hard as he could. Saizō grunted in surprise and lost his balance. It was just enough for Sasuke to land a hard kick to his stomach. Saizō flew backwards and crashed through the wall of a nearby dwelling.
Meanwhile, Satto and his men were all over the place dealing with Saizō's team. Both sides suffered losses, but the Uzumaki worked together to double-team the enemy whenever possible. Sasuke wanted to help, but he had to worry about Saizō first. Emerging from the damaged building, Saizō spat blood and hung on a split piece of wood for balance. There was poison in his eyes.
"All right," he said. "Let's play."
Saizō disappeared and took the moon with him as Sasuke was plunged into yet another terrifying genjutsu.
Madara stood in between Hashirama and Mito as the three of them faced the monstrous Kyuubi. "Hashirama, Mito," he said. "We have to restrain it first. If it fires off another of those giant chakra blasts and hits us, we're dead."
"On it," Mito said. She raced ahead and flung her chakra chains at the beast, latching onto its neck and paws, piercing its rough hide.
Hashirama fell to one knee and dug into the earth with his fingers. Chakra surged through his body and connected with the earth until dozens of roots rose from underground and ramified in all directions in search of something to strangle.
"Go!" he shouted to Madara. "I'll cover you!"
He followed Madara with his eyes as Madara ran toward the nearest moving branch and jumped atop it, racing higher and closer to the Kyuubi's maw. Hashirama directed his chakra to give Madara a clear path to where he needed to be while manipulating the rising branches to attack the Kyuubi itself.
The beast snapped its massive jaws and struggled against its new chakra chain shackles. Mito rose into the air, but Hashirama sent a thick branch in her direction. A few of her chakra chains looped around it and steadied her before the Kyuubi could reel her in too close. The Kyuubi's hide crackled with foreign chakra wherever Mito had it in her chains' clutches, sapping its chakra and trapping it in place. Sensing the threat of their teamwork, it crunched down on one of Hashirama's branches, ripped the branch apart, and uprooted several others, including the hold Hashirama had on Mito.
She went flying.
"Mito!" he shouted in fright.
Hashirama leaped into the sky, where more branches raced to meet him and carry him higher. Two of her chakra chains, which had previously tethered her to the now splintered branch, swung by him, and he made a grab for them. They burned his palms, as though sucking all the life out of his fingers, but he could not let go or he would fall and the Kyuubi would pull her in. Mito jerked to a halt in midair, gasping as she attempted to control this new power.
"I've got you!" he called to her.
She nodded grimly and channeled more chakra through the chains still connected to the Kyuubi, causing it to double over as she sealed off its chakra pathways and blood flow, anything her chains could reach.
Meanwhile, Madara used their distraction to launch an attack of his own. He jumped high into the air until he was face to face with the Kyuubi. He took a deep breath and spit out a molten stream of fire at the Kyuubi's maw and continued to weave hand seals. Wind-laced chakra melded with the fire and engorged it. The combination of two elements popped and exploded, like a hundred bombs going off at once. When it hit the Kyuubi, it consumed the beast's head and neck. Madara didn't let up even as he began to fall.
Mito saw what Madara was doing and redirected her chains to strangle the Kyuubi while it was blind and burning. But it wasn't meant to be. The Kyuubi howled and reared up on its hind legs to escape the fire. It hauled Mito high into the air along with it, and for a moment gravity and time abandoned her as she flew so close to the Kyuubi that she could have reached out and run her fingers through its fur.
There was a moment just before gravity clawed her back to the earth, that split second of suspension when she hovered just opposite the Kyuubi's golden eye. She could see its sinister, red chakra healing the massive burns Madara's technique had inflicted, evaporating its blood and sealing up its hide. But the look in the beast's eye as it saw her trying to hold on and entrap it was enough to paralyze her. She couldn't even scream. Never in her life had she seen so much hatred and anger projected upon her as she saw her reflection in its eye, like it knew her intimately and wanted nothing more than to rip her apart until there was nothing left, not even a memory.
And then the world picked up where it had left off. The Kyuubi fell back on all fours. It jerked its head so hard that Mito lost control of her chakra chains and came loose. She and Hashirama flew backwards together and crash-landed on the ground about a hundred yards away, saved only by Hashirama's quick reflexes. He summoned an enormous plant from underground with thick, fleshy leaves strong enough to cushion their impact and save them a few broken bones.
Hashirama coughed as he pulled himself up and crawled toward Mito. "You okay?"
Mito rolled over on the thick leaves and fell to the ground on her knees. "I've been better. Thank you for this."
The Kyuubi snarled as Madara continued to launch devastating wind-enhanced fire techniques at it from the ground. But when it threw its head back and inhaled deeply, Hashirama knew they were out of time.
"It's gonna fire off another of those chakra blasts!" he shouted. "Madara!"
But Madara couldn't hear him from so far away. Mito stood up.
"I've got him!"
Two golden chakra chains raced across the night sky toward Madara. He'd noticed what was about to happen and began to run, but he would never make it in time to avoid the blast. Mito's chains descended upon him.
"Madara!" she screamed.
He saw the chains hurtling toward him and jumped to meet them. They wrapped around each of his arms, and Mito yanked back on them as hard as she could. Madara soared through the air just as the Kyuubi's jaws began to glow with otherworldly power.
Hashirama crouched down on the ground and slashed his palm on a sharp rock. Blood dripped on the ground and he slammed his hand down and prayed for a miracle. "Kuchiyose: Gojū Rashōmon!"
Massive gates decorated with snarling demon faces and thicker than fifteen men lined up at arm's length sprang up from the earth, towering higher even than the Kyuubi itself. One after another, they were raised from the earth in succession. Madara soared over them as Mito brought him closer and closer. Just as the final gate rose in front of Hashirama, Mito pulled Madara down to the ground beside them, where he landed with a grunt. She released him from her chains, and his arms smoked through his armor. They locked eyes, and a split second later the world erupted in a symphony of light and sound as the Kyuubi fired its massive attack through Hashirama's demon gates.
Sasuke clutched his bleeding side, his breathing grown ragged. It wasn't deep enough to render him useless per se, but if he let the battle drag out for much longer, he would lose too much blood to keep up. Saizō walked toward him, dripping blood with every step where Sasuke had stabbed him in the back after worming his way out of a genjutsu. It wasn't enough to deter Saizō.
"Well, well. I suppose you weren't the leader of the Ten Heroes for no reason. But you still can't beat me with your old tricks, Sarutobi," Saizō said. "Perhaps taking up arms with the Senju has only made you even more obsolete than you were before."
"Keep talkin', asshole. I'm still gonna kill you."
Saizō laughed. "Not with that wound, you won't. Look at you. You can barely stand up straight."
Saizō drew the short sword at his hip and channeled wind-nature chakra through its blade. It hummed, sharp enough to slice through bone like it was made of paper. Sasuke racked his brain for a plan, thinking back on the times he'd trained with the Senju cousins. He needed something fresh, something Saizō would never see coming, something he couldn't counter. Something not his.
"Genjutsu has one weakness," Tōka had explained to Sasuke during a training session some years ago. "It only blinds the intended victim."
"So much for the great Flying Monkey," Saizō said. He lifted his sword and prepared to launch a wind scythe from close range, a sure hit.
That's it, Sasuke thought to himself. He can only blind me.
All of a sudden, someone ran in between them and attacked Saizō directly, taking him by surprise. Steel clanged at close range, and the sizzle of chakra made the air in the vicinity pop.
"General!" Sasuke said, rising to his feet.
Satto had just finished with one of Saizō's lackeys, pleased that the Uzumaki were gaining the upper hand. But one glance at Sasuke's battle sank his spirits. Saizō had a blade raised, ready to deliver the killing blow, and Sasuke merely sat there in shock. Sensing an opportunity to buy his ally some time, Satto intervened. He drew his sword and channeled water-based chakra to the blade. Clashing with Saizō, he was able to prevent his blade from cracking under powerful air pressure and pushed Saizō back.
"Sasuke! Get up!" Satto called. "I'll hold him!"
Sasuke swore and pushed himself up, ignoring the pain in his side. Satto wouldn't be able to hold off Saizō for long on his own.
"Stupid old man," Saizō spat. "You're in my way!"
Satto's elbows shook as he caught Saizō's sharpened blade on his own. "Old? Hah! We Uzumaki live twice as long as you mainlanders. I'm young enough to handle the likes of you!"
Saizō spun, and when he turned back around he had four arms instead of two, each wielding a chakra-infused sword. Satto grimaced and adjusted his stance to defend against the new blades. Saizō began to push him back.
"Damn genjutsu," Satto said through gritted teeth as he expertly outmaneuvered the four blades.
Saizō grinned and his teeth began to grow into long, dripping fangs. He increased his pace, relentless in his attacks as he forced Satto backwards. From afar, Sasuke watched as whatever genjutsu Saizō had cast wrought its terrible havoc. Satto was sweating, and his movements grew more sluggish as he wove his sword in beautifully fluid but tiring formations to counter what could have been four or five enemies at once. The real Saizō, however, slipped behind him and prepared to cut him down from behind while Satto continued to hallucinate.
"I don't think so," Sasuke said as he readied his next attack. "Kirigakure!"
Saizō paused just long enough for Sasuke's attack to connect. The earth split apart, and giant slabs of rock burst from the ground, intent on gobbling up Saizō where he stood. He swore and jumped to avoid them, but Sasuke gave chase. A column of rock caught him underfoot and shot him into the sky, all but flying as his moniker suggested. With one eye on Satto, who continued to fight within Saizō's illusion, Sasuke spat out a spray of molten ash that collided with a fleeing Saizō and melted the earth around him to lava.
But just when Sasuke was sure he'd outwitted his betrayer, the ash and lava mixture churned and rose of its own accord in the shape of a great bird, talons outstretched and shedding cinders with each terrible flap of its wings. Sasuke didn't have time to be terrified.
Genjutsu! But when?!
The real Saizō passed behind him, but he didn't bother slashing Sasuke. They locked eyes in midair and Saizō bared his teeth in a sinister grin. Sasuke fell and the firebird caught him. He screamed as the magma flayed his skin to the bone. Illusion or not, Saizō's genjutsu was powerful enough to override logic and reason and replace them with nothing but the horror. Sasuke screamed, and Saizō dove for his true target: Satto.
"General!" Sasuke screamed, jamming fingers into the wound at his side to disrupt his chakra flow and break the illusion before he truly believed he was being immolated. The pain disappeared and the bird along with it, leaving only a large pool of soupy ashes from Sasuke's earlier combination attack. But he was too late.
Satto heard his cry of warning, but it was his undoing. The genjutsu holding him disappeared as Saizō drove his blade clean through Satto's chest.
"No!" Sasuke struggled to his feet and raced toward them.
Saizō's dark eyes were alight with mad glee as he withdrew the sword, now dripping with Satto's blood. He said nothing as the old General stared up at him, slack-jawed and incredulous. Satto sputtered and clutched a hand over the gaping hole in his chest. Blood spurted through his fingers in time with his fading heartbeat. In those moments of realization, he seemed to age twenty years as his expression warped from one of calm resolution to abject horror. Saizō kicked him hard in the chest and he landed face-first in the ground. He didn't get up.
"Now, it's your turn," Saizō said as he prepared to initiate another genjutsu.
Sasuke shook with rage. No way, there was no way he'd give Saizō the chance. He held his bloody hands together in the seal for the most rudimentary ninjutsu technique known to the world. The first one he'd ever learned as a child. The one that had made him the legend he was today.
"Tajū: Kage Bunshin no jutsu!" he bellowed.
Smoke filled the area, obscuring Sasuke from view just before Saizō could complete his genjutsu. A hundred voices joined together in a battle cry as copies of Sasuke emerged from the smokescreen and converged on Saizō. Most shinobi could create clones of themselves, generally between one and three. And yet, somehow Sasuke had learned to copy himself a hundred times over. It was madness, unheard of. A waste of chakra, surely. But now, an army of Flying Monkeys converged on Saizō the way they had once descended on the enemies of Sanada's Ten Heroes, and he had no choice but to cut them down. He stepped back and unleashed his genjutsu, dark eyes shifting around in search of the real Sasuke among the replicas.
Clones dropped like flies. The genjutsu tore into their skin like a cancer, tearing it open to expose bleeding muscle. Those that got caught up in it wailed in agony before popping, their chakra stores devoured by the illusion. But where one disappeared, two more filled its place.
"Coward! Hiding behind your clones!" Saizō said.
The closest clones landed in range of Saizō and engaged him in high-speed taijutsu that had him recoiling. They were every bit as skilled as the original, and Saizō was no match for their hand-to-hand combat. He flipped backwards on his good arm and quickly performed a round of hand seals with his injured one. Once righted Sasuke's clones were upon him, but Saizō was ready. He took a deep breath and expelled a pressurized blast of air that cut through the group of clones that was closest, tearing them limb from limb as it passed.
He immediately launched another genjutsu on the tailwind, this one wide enough to encompass nearly all the remaining clones. They dropped to the ground, writhing, before poofing into nothingness once their stored chakra was depleted. One remained, and it ran with the molten ash Sasuke had created earlier, manipulating it with chakra and flinging it toward Saizō in a hail of bullets.
"Enough!" Saizō shouted.
He put everything he had into a genjutsu that crippled the last clone and teleported himself out of the lava bullets' path.
"You missed a few," Sasuke said from behind him.
Saizō whirled with his blade and slashed, dispelling the clone. Another clone appeared before him and punched, but Saizō caught the clone's wrist and twisted it until he heard a crack.
"No, I didn't," he said. "That's one hundred."
Saizō gagged and looked down. The tip of a sword protruded from his stomach, coated in blood. The clone he had by the wrist still hadn't disappeared.
"Wrong," Sasuke said. "I'm the real one."
Behind Saizō, the clone that had stabbed him disintegrated, leaving only the blade embedded in his stomach. Saizō coughed, the color already draining from his face. Impossible. Impossible. How had he not seen through Sasuke's rudimentary trick? What had he missed?
"Clever," he wheezed. "But you... You always were clever, old friend."
Sasuke gripped a kunai in his hand and lifted it for Saizō to see. "It's true. You were my friend, the best I ever had." He blinked to keep any treacherous tears at bay. "But you threw it all away, you stupid son of a bitch. I wanna know why."
Saizō heaved, and it took Sasuke a moment to realize he was laughing. "Poor S-Sarutobi. Still so slow. You'll never... Never understand why because you don't have what it takes to appreciate true power. I had the world at my f-feet, and you... You were in my way. It's that s-simple."
Even gasping for breath and shaking under the enervating pain of his grievous wounds, Saizō was defiant and cruel to the bitter end. How had Sasuke never seen it before? This insidious hatred that had taken root in Saizō long ago and festered, blossomed, until it was too late. The illusions had become the new reality, no longer just shapeless fears and suspicions. How had he missed it? Where had he gone wrong? This man had once been his friend, a brother in all but blood, and Sasuke had never seen him slowly mutating over the years.
"I see," Sasuke said, his throat closing up as the violence of his emotions—guilt, despair, and most of all, regret—threatened to overwhelm him even now, after everything.
Saizō used the last of his energy to spit in Sasuke's face, bloody spittle, sticky and foul. It ran down Sasuke's scarred cheek, and he wiped it away on his sooty fingers, hands trembling.
You're not the man I knew anymore.
Sasuke jammed the kunai through Saizō's heart, the heart of a man he did not recognize anymore. "I'll never be in your way again."
Saizō choked on his own blood, and Sasuke held his gaze as he faded, so full of anger and hatred. It was over in a matter of moments. Saizō's eyes rolled back in his head as his corpse slumped in Sasuke's grasp. Ripping the kunai out, he let Saizō fall to the ground. Exhaustion and blood loss got the better of Sasuke, and he fell to his knees. Saizō's face, relaxed in death, lost the edge of mad hatred and anger, and there, just there, Sasuke could see the face of the man he'd loved and trusted.
Sasuke's shoulders shook, and the sobs swept through him like a tsunami, full-body and crippling, and he held his face in his bloody hands helpless to do little else.
Hashirama's hands burned as he channeled more and more chakra to support the demon gates, anything to reinforce them against this monster, but the Kyuubi's attack obliterated the first and second gates effortlessly. Madara pulled Mito toward him and shoved her to the ground, shielding her body with his, as Hashirama's ultimate defense crumbled before them. The third gate fell, then the fourth. All in the blink of an eye.
But death never came. Mito opened her eyes, and all Madara could see was her, stormy green eyes turbulent under the light of the moon. Still alive. How were they still alive?
"Madara," she said, barely a whisper.
He swallowed hard and touched his forehead to hers, incredulous that they were still here. That for the second time that night, he'd evaded death. His arms burned where her chakra chains had dragged him through the sky and cut off circulation and chakra flow, but he was still here. Because of her.
"Mito, you saved me," he said.
Her breath was cool against his lips as he hovered over her, content to just breathe for a moment. "Yeah."
Nearby, Hashirama stood up and walked toward the fifth gate in awe. It was charred black and cracking, but it had withstood the Kyuubi's attack. He reached out a hand to touch it.
"Whoa," he said.
Madara got up and pulled Mito up after him. She smiled at Hashirama. "But he saved us all," she said.
Madara followed her gaze, still reeling from the brush with death he'd so narrowly escaped. Yeah, he thought to himself, he really did this time.
They joined Hashirama, and Mito felt the ruined fifth gate with her palms. Her chakra chains floated behind her and shed light on the damage. It had taken a beating, but it was still standing.
"I'll be damned," Madara said. "So you are good for something."
"Hey, I'm pretty sure you'd be dead without these mystical palms." He waggled his outspread fingers.
"...I'm going to pretend you didn't say that. For your benefit."
Mito watched them, smiling softly. But the moment soon ended when the Kyuubi roared once more. The earth began to shake as it paced closer. Other Senju, Uchiha, and Uzumaki soldiers began to approach the trio.
"Stay back!" Hashirama called to them. "It's not safe!"
"Boys, we're not done. The Kyuubi's still out there," Mito said, sighting the beast's billowing tails over the top of the fifth gate.
The other shinobi did not heed Hashirama's warning, and Madara scowled. "Don't come any closer!" he barked.
Hashirama put out a hand and raised a thick wooden wall that reached from the ruined cliff face to the shore. It wouldn't stop the truly determined, but it would slow them down and keep them out of the Kyuubi's crosshairs for now.
"This strategy isn't working. If it blasts us again, we're goners. I don't have the energy to summon those gates again. We have to take it out with one shot, something big," Hashirama said. "Mito, you're the sealing expert here. What're our options?"
Mito shook her head. "I can summon king beasts, but this monster's like nothing I've ever even dreamed of. Even if it were hypothetically possible to seal the Kyuubi, I'd need a hundred times more chakra than I have, a seal strong enough to bind it, and somewhere to put it. I... I don't think I can do much as I am."
"Then I'll handle it," Madara said.
"Madara, no," Mito said, taking his hands. "I know what you're thinking, and you can't."
"Can't what?" Hashirama asked.
"It's the only way," Madara argued. "It's the best chance we've got, and you know it."
"Don't be an idiot! You saw what it did last time. I saw what it did to you," Mito implored him.
But Madara was done listening. "I'm not having this discussion with you. You can help me, or you can get out of my way."
"Somebody wanna tell me what the hell's going on?" Hashirama said. "Because we're about to have some bad company in, like, thirty seconds."
The earth trembled so violently that Madara lost his footing.
"Make that fifteen," Hashirama said, paling.
Madara pushed past them both. "I'm going in."
Mito watched him go, knowing that there was no convincing him when he made up his mind. But this was bigger than them, bigger than anything she'd ever faced, and she hated that there wasn't more she could do. It was difficult to accept that she wasn't strong enough to deal with this threat to her home on her own, and it hurt. But Madara was being reckless. He couldn't do this alone.
"Hashirama, we have to help him," Mito said. "He's going to get himself killed."
"What exactly is he doing?"
Mito was about to respond when the air began to pop and the smell of burning flesh and chakra filled the area. The Kyuubi roared in agony as black flames bloomed upon its hide.
"Come on!" Mito said as she dashed toward Madara.
The pain was nothing. Whatever the cost, it was worth it to take down this beast of nightmares. His left eye widened beyond its limits, spilling blood and heat as he traced the Kyuubi's hide with his vision. Black flames ate away at its fur and skin everywhere he looked, ravenous. The Kyuubi lunged, trying to shake free of the flames, but it was a meaningless effort. The beast crashed to the ground. Its demonic chakra seeped from its wounds, thick and red, and converged on the black flames.
Madara gritted his teeth, fighting chakra exhaustion and the pain that spread from his eye to his head to his heart. The Kyuubi's wide, golden eye found his, and Madara fell to one knee as he saw himself, the Sharingan, reflected therein.
"Promise me, Madara."
"Burn!" he shouted.
Tajima's memory faded as the apex of hatred and sorrow and more pain than Madara could bear consumed him, and the black fires roared. The Kyuubi gnashed its jaws in his direction, but thick branches moving with a life all their own struck it and snapped its head back before it could reach Madara. Strong arms hauled Madara to his feet.
"Madara," Mito said, wiping the blood from his eye. "Come on, snap out of it."
Hashirama continued to pummel the Kyuubi with his Mokuton, taking advantage of its momentary debilitation. But it was an opportunity that didn't last long as the Kyuubi's sinister chakra snuffed out Madara's ghost fire slowly but surely. Hellfire could not burn the devil himself.
"It's not enough power," Madara said, gasping for air. "I'm not..."
"You have to stop before you lose control!" Mito said.
The fires spread from the Kyuubi to the rocky earth, taking to any solid surface. Beyond the wooden barrier Hashirama had erected earlier, Uzumaki soldiers began to cross over and flank the Kyuubi, launching seals to bind it, but to no avail.
"Settle down!" Hashirama shouted at the Kyuubi, calling forth more roots from underground to confine its movements.
Madara's black fire made short work of Hashirama's trees, however, and as a result the flames only spread. Hashirama was forced to retreat when the black flames nearly spread up his arm. "Whoa, that's hot!"
"Hashirama, move!" Madara shouted.
Hashirama looked back at Mito and Madara, confused, and the Kyuubi took the opportunity to swat at him with one of its gigantic paws. Mito gasped and flung her chakra chains. They struck the Kyuubi's paw just before it could connect with Hashirama, and she channeled sealing chakra through them to buy Hashirama some time. The Kyuubi's paw contorted at abnormal angles, and its wicked claws dug into the soft pad, breaking the flesh and leaking red chakra. The Kyuubi lost its balance and fell forward on its good leg, howling in pain as all chakra and blood ceased circulation to its mutilated paw. Hashirama dashed out of the line of fire unscathed and rejoined Mito and Madara.
"Thanks, that was close," he said, flashing Mito a grin.
"Oh no, that's my father's battalion," Mito said, noticing the other Uzumaki gathering around the Kyuubi.
"Go," Madara said. "I'm finishing this."
"You heard the man," Hashirama said. "Besides, this is all he's good for, anyway."
Mito nodded, concerned about her clansmen and knowing there was little else she could do for Madara now. "Okay."
Madara watched them dash away and create a perimeter of chakra chains and moving branches. The Kyuubi shook with rage as its molten chakra battled Madara's fire and slowly overtook it. He was out of time.
He stood on shaky legs and reached out a hand towards the Kyuubi. "Vermin," he spat. "You're not welcome here!"
The Kyuubi threw its head back in preparation to launch another chakra blast, but Madara was faster. He directed the flames to burst in the Kyuubi's mouth, burning it from the inside out. The smell of roasting flesh and blood was redolent in the air, and Madara had to fight to keep his eyes open against the rancid sting of it. But Hashirama and Mito were counting on him, and he couldn't give up, not when he had the pride of the Uchiha riding on his shoulders as he faced hell incarnate alone for one last push.
Red chakra steamed in the air, engulfing the Kyuubi once more. The haze built and Madara fell, unable to stand anymore. With one final, bone-chilling howl, the Kyuubi leaped from the cloud of raw chakra surrounding it and ran towards sea, cradling the contorted paw Mito had sealed off. One leap and it crossed a league of ocean. The red miasma trailed behind it along with the last of the black flames, just as stubborn as their maker who watched the monster flee, beaten.
But not defeated.
Madara collapsed on his back, his left eye swollen shut and caked with blood.
Mito could hardly believe her eyes when the Kyuubi turned tail and fled across the sea. She chased it with her chakra chains, bracing herself for some new tactic, but the red mist that had called it here also swept it away. With the approach of dawn, there was not a trace of the Kyuubi left. Even the violent whirlpools surrounding Uzushiogakure seemed to calm and spin in peace. She sank to her knees and the chakra chains disintegrated into a thousand shards of light.
"It's gone," she said, incredulous. "We did it."
The thought of Hashirama and Madara had her pulling herself to her feet again and seeking them out. Hashirama was on his knees surrounded by twisted roots that had kept the Uzumaki soldiers at bay some distance away. He was clutching his thigh, and she wondered if he'd suffered an injury bad enough to ground him.
"Hey," she said, offering him a hand.
The sunlight grew stronger by the minute and illuminated the night's efforts on Hashirama's face. He was dirty, bloody, and bruised. But somehow, he managed to smile brighter even than the dawn at the sight of her. Mito couldn't help but return the smile.
"Man, how're you still standing? I'm beat!" he said.
"I guess it's your lucky day that I'm around to drag you out of here."
Mito slung his arm over her shoulder and helped him walk as she searched for Madara nearby. He was lying prostrate on the ground, unmoving save for the rise and fall of his chest.
"Well, not as beat as him," Hashirama said.
Mito grinned and walked them to Madara's side. He heard them coming and cracked open his good eye. "Oh, it's you."
"Morning, Sleeping Beauty," Hashirama said.
"Come on," Mito said, grabbing Madara by the arm. "Let's get out of here."
Madara grunted as Mito hauled him up and slung his arm around her free shoulder. Supporting both of them, she practically had to drag them towards where the rest of the Senju, Uchiha, and Uzumaki soldiers were gathering and shouting in joy and relief.
"How the hell're you still standing?" Madara groused as he leaned his weight on Mito for support.
"That's exactly what I said!" Hashirama said.
Their clansmen shouted and waved and rushed to meet them, and Mito couldn't help but laugh as she hugged Hashirama and Madara closer.
When Madara awoke next, it was in a wide room stacked wall-to-wall with hospital beds and patients in varying degrees of life and death. His vision was obscured, and for a moment he feared he'd dreamed up the Kyuubi's escape and he was back on the battlefield engulfed in insidious red chakra. But when he raised a hand to his face, he felt thick bandages covering his left eye, damp with blood. He had a splitting headache, and when he sat up his vision swam. More dressing covered his hands and arms where Mito's chakra chains had burned him. It had been ages since he'd last eaten, and the fight had taken everything he had.
Mito. And Hashirama.
He looked around for them and noticed that the Uzumaki medics had made no attempt to segregate the wounded this time around. Uchiha, Senju, and Uzumaki lay together in their beds. Most were passed out in critical condition medics moved from bed to bed checking on the patients. Madara rubbed his good eye. Someone had cleaned up his face, but he felt dirty and grimy from the hard battle he'd fought earlier. He wanted nothing more than to get out of here and clean up, but the urge to find Mito and Hashirama was stronger. What had become of them?
Slipping out of bed, he wandered the rows of beds and scanned the faces for anyone familiar. He walked on autopilot, lost in thought. While he'd fought Hashirama more times than he could count over the years, never had he fought alongside him. And yet, it had been so natural. Knowing Hashirama's strengths and weaknesses as well as he did, it was easy to act and compensate. To trust that Hashirama would have his back if only because Hashirama was the one person able to keep up.
A hand on his wrist startled Madara, and he had to turn his head fully to see with one eye blinded. A young woman smiled up at him from the hospital bed below.
"You're awake," Mito said.
Her long hair was splayed over her pillow and tumbled over the edge of the bed. Even exhausted and battered, she was still so...
"Princess," Madara said, hanging back and sitting on the bed as she scooted to accommodate him.
Madara hesitated to move closer with so many people around, comatose or not. She smiled and he remembered the image of her facing the Kyuubi alone, surrounded by celestial chains of light and fearless as she looked back at him, so full of joy to see him alive and safe. He hadn't thought she had it in her to come so far, but she'd had his back out there, just as Hashirama had.
"That power you used," he said. "Was that...?"
She blushed. "I guess...I wasn't ready to let you go."
Madara searched for words to satisfy her but found none. Instead, he took her hand in his and squeezed.
"I told you I should've stayed with you," she said.
He held her gaze for a moment, uncertain but more determined than ever. All those years ago, meeting her on the beach and thinking so little of her, thinking even now that she could never know what it was to dig her fingers into the earth and bleed like he did because what did a princess know of the world? What did she know of facing a monster of myth and legend with no fear and holding it back simply because she was good enough? What did she know of him and the dark covenants he carried, enough to stay and save him when he wasn't strong enough to do it himself?
"There's no one like you," he said, his voice gravel and smoke. "There never will be."
Tears welled in her eyes as she understood the meaning in his tender words, words he'd never spoken to anyone, least of all a silly highborn woman who'd had everything handed to her, everything he'd never had. But she was here. She had always been here even when he'd had no idea—
Mito leaned in and kissed him, heedless of the sleeping patients around them. And for the first time in a long time, Madara didn't care, either. He brought a hand up and threaded it through her thick hair and kissed her back, wishing for once that this wouldn't end, that the sun wouldn't rise in the east and the world could be forever dark and dim, just for them.
Footsteps froze their wandering hands. Madara pulled away and turned to see whoever had treaded close.
"Hashirama," Mito said, tucking her hair behind her ear and offering him a small smile.
Hashirama walked with a crutch under his right arm and had his hair pulled back in a ponytail for comfort. His gaze was a little surprised, a little embarrassed, but he recovered quickly and smiled his usual, bright smile.
"Hey, guys," he said.
Mito waved Hashirama closer. "Sit. The medics won't bother us. How are you feeling?"
Hashirama hobbled to the side of Mito's cot opposite Madara and took a seat on the edge. His hands and arms were bandaged, and Madara wondered if he'd also gotten a taste of Mito's chakra chains in the course of their battle.
"You know, after tonight things'll go back to normal," Hashirama said, catching Madara's eye.
Madara averted his gaze. "Mm. It's only natural now that the battle's over."
"I never got the chance to properly thank you both," Mito said, hugging her knees to her chest. "Without you Uzushiogakure would—and my family... Well, you understand."
"It was nothing," Hashirama said.
She looked up and held Hashirama's gaze, her eyes hard. "It wasn't nothing. Both of you, us, everyone. If we hadn't all come together, we'd all be dead."
Hashirama scratched the back of his head. "Now that you mention it, this was the first time I've ever fought with Madara instead of against him, haha!"
Madara bravely resisted the temptation to roll his eyes. "I'm still in shock that your natural idiocy didn't get us all killed."
Hashirama's face fell. "Aw, come on, Madara. You don't mean that."
"Don't get all depressed. Haven't you outgrown those mood swings yet? For god sakes."
Mito looked between them, amazed. "You know, for two sworn enemies with a thousand years of family feuding behind you, you kinda seem to get along pretty well."
Madara and Hashirama both turned on her, and she put up her hands.
"Whoa, hey, your secret's safe with me," she said.
Madara let it go, but the way her eyes lingered on them, curious, told him she wouldn't forget this.
"Actually, Madara and I met when we were kids. Can you believe he didn't know who I was? Well, I guess my hair was a little different back then," Hashirama said.
Madara scoffed. "Moron. Your hair has nothing to do with it. How could anyone have known you were the heir to the Senju clan with your asinine commentary and ridiculous mood swings?"
Hashirama sighed and caved in on himself once again. Mito shook her head.
"I feel like I'm dreaming," she said. "Even on the battlefield, I was afraid you wouldn't help me when we found Madara," she said to Hashirama. "I'm glad I was wrong."
"Speaking of the battle," Madara said, eager to change the subject and looking around to make sure no one was listening to their conversation. "That monster got away."
Mito and Hashirama sobered.
"I wonder where it went?" Mito asked. "Or if it will be back anytime soon?"
"Unlikely," Hashirama said, pensive. "It only appears in times of terrible warfare and bedlam. As long as Uzushiogakure remains peaceful, you shouldn't have to worry about it."
Madara narrowed his visible eye. "That reminds me. You seem to know quite a bit about the Kyuubi. Out with it, Hashirama. Tell us everything you know."
Hashirama sighed. "Right, I guess I probably should. We're on neutral ground, after all, so I'm sure you won't take this information and use it against me in the future or anything, right?"
Mito shot Madara a look, and he practically vibrated in frustration. "This is no time for games, Hashirama. Out with it, or I'll beat it out of you."
"You've got one eye right now, buddy. You couldn't beat a piñata."
Mito put a hand each on Madara's and Hashirama's chests. "Please, both of you."
Madara ignored her and continued to glower at Hashirama. Something about this place took the sting off his grudge, reminded him of what it was like to be a kid sneaking off to meet up with Hashirama and spar. What it was like to live a dream. Hashirama, as always, was the first to back off.
"Sorry," he said. "Look, I'll tell you what I know. No matter what happens, none of us should have to face one of those monsters alone."
"One of them? You mean, there're more?" Mito asked.
"Yeah, altogether there's nine Bijuu. You've heard of the Sage of Six Paths, right?"
"The legendary creator of ninshū? What does he have to do with anything?"
"Everything, I'm guessing. He was supposedly the father of the Senju and Uchiha clans' progenitors," Madara said.
"Yeah, but he was also the greatest shinobi of his time, maybe of all time. He fought and sealed a monster called the Juubi within himself. The Juubi was pretty much the nine Bijuu all stuck together into one, big super monster. The Kyuubi's one of them."
"Amazing," Mito said. "He sealed it inside himself? But that would be a creature nine times as powerful as the one we just faced."
"Well, that's why he's a legend. No one even knows for sure if he really existed. Some people think he was actually a bunch of different guys, and over the years people just combined those stories into one person. I guess for the 'wow' factor," Hashirama said.
"So the Kyuubi is a part of the original Juubi," Madara said. "And there are eight more of them. Do we know where?"
Hashirama shook his head. "That's what I don't know. My father told me that each Bijuu is a force of nature, and nature has different ways of manifesting, right? So, the Kyuubi appears in times of strife, drawn by people's hatred and suffering. Others appear under different circumstances, like during lightning storms or floods. One's even supposed to live in dreams, if you can believe it. But they have one thing in common: they're always drawn to places where a lot of people will die. It's the bloodshed that makes them powerful."
"That's terrible," Mito said. "So, you're saying that some normal natural disasters people have had to learn to live with might actually be the work of these monsters? All those innocent lives..."
"Yeah, I'll say. The Senju clan's progenitor, Ashura, passed this information down to us as a warning so we'd be ready when the Bijuu appeared on earth again."
"Well, they're here now," Madara said. "At least, one is. We didn't kill it. It will come back, someday."
They were silent a moment as Madara's words sank in.
"This isn't right," Mito said at length. "If there really are monsters like that running around killing people, then we have to stop them."
"We weren't even strong enough to defeat one," Madara said. "We're the best of our clans, and we couldn't take that thing out. How can we possibly take out all nine?"
His praise, given without a second thought like it was the most natural thing in the world, shocked Mito into silence, and it showed on her face.
"Then we'll get stronger," Hashirama said. "Madara, I know you and I don't agree on practically anything, but I think we can agree on this. Next time, the Kyuubi's not getting away."
"No, it's not," Madara said, almost snarling.
Hashirama peered at Mito. "So, I didn't realize you two probably met during your campaign up north."
"Actually, we met when we were children before Uzushiogakure was founded," Mito said.
Madara slipped off the bed. "If that's all, Hashirama, then I'm getting some sleep. This might be the last night I can rest easy under the same roof as you."
"Madara," Mito called to him, but he walked away.
She frowned as she watched him go. Hashirama also slipped off the bed.
"He's probably right about getting some rest, at least."
"Yeah, I suppose."
Hashirama watched Madara walk away and get back into bed, his expression distant. Mito bit her lip, suddenly uncomfortable.
"I'll tell you another time, okay?" she said.
Hashirama flashed her a smile. "Don't worry about it."
Watching him go, she couldn't believe she hadn't noticed what had been right in front of her the whole time. From the moment the fighting had begun, most of his smiles had been fake.
Over the next few days, the Uzumaki and their guests worked hard to undo some of the damage the invaders and the Kyuubi had wrought upon the island. Houses needed repairing, people needed relocating, the shoreline needed restoring, and fires needed dousing. Tobirama found himself at the head of the fire dousing brigade, as it were.
"Not that I'm not thrilled to help out, but I can't help but feel like I was meant for greater things in life," Tobirama grumbled as he filled trough after trough with water.
Tōka rolled her eyes. "You're the only one around who can produce water from out of thin air around here. Think of it as calling in a specialist."
"Specialists get paid," he grumbled.
Some Uzumaki and Senju soldiers were working together to put out a fire that had spread through a three-story building. They weren't having much luck. Grumbling something about amateurs, Tobirama shouted for them to stand back. He gathered his chakra and created a swirling vortex of water from nothing and hurled it at the burning building. The wave crashed into the wall and poured through the windows and holes in the scaffolding. Thick steam rose from the structure, hissing and spitting. Some of the soldiers standing nearest the building got soaked.
"There. You're welcome," Tobirama said.
"You shouldn't have done that," Tōka said. "Look, you caused more damage than the fire."
Sections of wall fell from the already dilapidated building, and Tobirama scowled. "Whatever, I put the fire out."
"Yeah, but now that building might not even be salvageable."
"Well, maybe the Uzumaki oughtta reconsider building everything out of wood. It's totally impractical."
"What else are they supposed to use?"
"I don't know! Not wood!"
Tōka threw up her hands. "Good lord. I'm starting to see Izuna's point."
Tobirama crossed his arms and jutted his lower lip out. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Tōka, we need your help over here," one of the Senju soldiers said.
"Coming!" Tōka took off to help.
Tobirama marched after her. "Hey, don't just walk away!"
Tōka ignored him, knowing he would follow no matter what she did or did not say.
As soon as Mito was well enough to leave the hospital, she went home to clean up. Most of her family's quarters had been spared any serious damage, to her immense relief. Lena was not around to help out, but Mito didn't mind, figuring she must be with Sasuke. The thought brought a smile to her face. Sasuke had been in critical condition and unconscious when the medics got ahold of him. He was still unconscious when Mito left the hospital. Concerned, she'd asked one of the medics what had happened, and they said he'd fought an old ally-turned-traitor of his. Mito didn't know the whole story except that Sasuke had apparently won. She was grateful he was okay and made a mental note to ask Hashirama about him later.
Dressed in a simple, white yukata with her wet hair loose down her back, she made her way to Satto's room, disappointed to find it empty. Maybe he was at the hospital? But she hadn't seen him there.
There were a lot of people there. I could have just missed him.
Perhaps he was part of the restoration committee already working to rebuild Uzushiogakure. In that case, he could be anywhere on the island. Her father would know, she decided, and went to find him. Ensui had come to retrieve her at the hospital, having suffered fewer injuries than most of the others who'd participated in the island's defense. He'd been so relieved to see her well and safe that he'd teared up and drawn her into a hug right in front of everybody. She'd never seen him so shaken up, so emotional in the face of almost losing her. They hadn't had much time to catch up, what with Ensui having responsibilities to the Uzumaki as well as the visiting Uchiha and Senju clans. But it had been enough to know she was all right.
Mito wandered through her family's vast residence and came upon the door to the sun room, where she figured Ensui would be. She heard voices on the other side of the door. Odd, considering Ensui never conducted business in this room, his private retreat, unless it was an extraordinary circumstance. She knocked and announced her presence.
"Come in, Mito," her father said from inside.
Mito slid the shoji door open and let herself inside. She was surprised to find Hashirama standing by the entrance to the garden, his expression stony but not unkind. When he met her gaze, he offered her a polite smile in greeting. He no longer had the crutch he'd been using in the hospital, to Mito's relief.
"Hashirama," she said, returning his smile. "I'm glad to see you up and about."
"Me, too," he said. "Although, now I can see why some people have such problems with hospitals. I was going a little stir crazy in there."
Mito tucked her hair behind her ear and looked down, smiling a little. "Yes, they can be a little claustrophobic."
"Mito, I'm glad you're here," Ensui said. "Hashirama and I were just discussing where to go from here. Sit."
Mito took a seat next to Ensui on the floor at a low table and folded her hands on her lap, wondering what this was all about. Hashirama remained standing. Looking up at him like this, the casual greeting he'd given her seemed so far off.
"Hashirama, you were saying," Ensui said.
Hashirama cleared his throat, and all traces of his good humor left. Mito just stared. It was like with that one change of subject, he became a totally different person. Not the Hashirama she'd come to know over the past few days.
"Right," Hashirama said. "An alliance is in the Uzumaki's best interest. I don't mean to speak out of line, but after what's just happened, surely you can't deny it any longer."
Mito gaped before she could stop herself.
"My answer hasn't changed," Ensui said. "Alliance with the Senju would only mean picking a side in your feud with the Uchiha who, need I remind you, are currently my guests here. You're asking me to join a war in which the Uzumaki have no interest."
"I'm asking you to be practical. How many soldiers did you lose? Uzushiogakure took a heavy blow, and Sanada himself is still out there. He might return."
Ensui shook his head. "Yukimura Sanada had no reason to attack us."
"But he did. And he brought a monster with him. If it hadn't been for us—"
"You mean, if it hadn't been for you and the Uchiha. As I recall, it was a joint effort."
Hashirama's gaze flickered to Mito briefly. "Yes, it was. But even then, we didn't kill the Kyuubi. It's still out there."
Mito got over her initial shock and found her voice. "The Kyuubi was lured here because of the violence taking place. The fight is over. There's no reason for it to make another appearance."
She held his gaze, and he faltered.
"Hashirama, is this true?" Ensui asked.
"...Yes, it's true," Hashirama said softly. "But that doesn't mean this is the end of it. You know, now more than ever, that the affairs of the mainland can and will involve Uzushiogakure. Isolationism isn't a realistic solution going forward."
Mito said, "So instead, you propose the Uzumaki join forces with the Senju and make enemies out of the Uchiha by default. After everything the Uchiha have done to help defend Uzushiogakure."
Hashirama had the grace to look wounded, but he spoke with confidence. "I propose we each gain a new ally, not a new enemy. Uzumaki and Senju share blood and a history of cooperation. Your talents are invaluable to us, and you could use our support in defending Uzushiogakure should something like this ever happen again. And it will happen again so long as loyalties are only as good as a last name."
Mito gritted her teeth. "You're still skirting the issue. This feud with the Uchiha is your problem. The Uzumaki have no enemies, but you propose that we take them on when they have done nothing to wrong us. It's the cornerstone of selfishness."
Ensui watched but did not interrupt.
Hashirama averted his gaze to compose himself. "Maybe it's a little selfish, but aren't all alliances? Isn't the point of an alliance to fortify yourself against threats? Threats like the Kyuubi?" he challenged. "You're sitting ducks out here. What do you think would've happened if I hadn't been here?"
"What do you think would've happened if Madara hadn't been here?" Mito countered.
Hashirama blinked and deflated. When he spoke again, it was not so much as the leader of the Senju clan, but as a man who had been through a hellish ordeal and was afraid to repeat it. "I'm not trying to take over Uzushiogakure. I only want..." He paused to breathe, to collect his courage, and said, "I need you. And you need me."
Mito bit her tongue at the intimate turn this conversation had taken. Like the day she'd first met him, Mito couldn't deny the sincerity in Hashirama's words. If he hadn't been there when they fought the Kyuubi... If he hadn't been there to revive Madara...
"Madara won't offer what I'm offering," he said, returning his attention to Ensui. "You know as well as I do that the Uchiha don't associate with outsiders. He hasn't approached you with a proposal, has he?"
Ensui said nothing. His jaw was set, and Mito felt a flutter of panic in the pit of her belly.
Of course not, she thought to herself.
"A man's name is his identity; it's everything."
Of course not. For Madara, the Uchiha clan came first.
"...What exactly are you offering?" Mito said.
"A fair alliance," Hashirama said. "Uzushiogakure remains autonomous without any interference from the Senju."
"In exchange for soldiers to fight your wars."
"In exchange for a chance to help make peace a reality one day."
Ensui sighed. "You truly believe it, don't you?"
Hashirama smiled, and Mito stared. He looked lighter, different somehow. Unforced. "I believe in the power of individuals to rise above the limitations of the group." He gestured around him with his arms. "If there's such a thing as peace, I'll find it."
It was a sneaky tactic using her own words against her now. Coming from anyone else, they would have sounded hollow, even mocking. But with Hashirama, who had shown himself to be nothing but true and just and so full of hope from the moment she met him, she believed them.
"I don't need an answer right now," Hashirama said hastily.
"When do you plan on departing?" Ensui said.
"By the end of the week. My men will help with repairs until then."
Ensui nodded. "I appreciate the assistance. I'll have an answer for you by then."
Hashirama bowed and excused himself. As soon as he was gone, Ensui refilled his tea cup from the kettle on the table and sipped in silence. Mito said nothing as she stared at the door through which Hashirama had departed, still trying to process all that he'd said.
"What do you think?" Ensui asked at length.
"I think it's a lot to take in."
"Mm. It's why the Senju are here at all. Hashirama approached me with this the day he arrived."
Mito gaped at her father. "And you didn't say anything?"
He shrugged. "There wasn't much time."
Mito rubbed her temples. "It's a lot to take in," she said again.
"Mm." After a short pause he continued, "Mito, there's something you should know."
"What is it?"
Ensui set down his tea and rubbed his eyes. When he looked up at her again, he seemed to have aged ten years. She hadn't noticed it before, but there were bags under his eyes and day old stubble on his chin, dark red despite his graying hair. He looked haggard, like he hadn't found time to return fully to the land of the living just yet. She swallowed, dreading whatever he would say. He took his time choosing his words. Mito's hands began to shake. She thought of the red mist she and Hashirama had chased, those minutes of mounting dread as her feet pounded against the earth, closer to something she didn't understand but knew to fear instinctively.
Finally, Ensui took a shaky breath but couldn't meet her eyes. "It's about Satto."
Mito stared at her reflection in the mirror in darkness. Lights hurt her eyes lately. At least, this was what she told herself. In darkness no one could see the puffiness around her eyes from crying too much. She'd entertained the idea of seeking out Madara, but she had no energy to leave her room. She touched a hand to the glistening crystal around her neck, which glowed in the moonlight diffusing through her window.
"This was Satto's," Ensui had explained as he clasped the necklace around Mito's neck. "His grandmother wore it. He wanted you to have it when the time was right."
The crystal was cool against her too-hot skin. It was an ancient relic, supposedly, forged of Indra's fire and Ashura's stone. It had been passed down through the Uzumaki line for generations to those who had done what Mito had done.
"They say the chakra chains have the power to bind anything, even fate itself," Ensui had explained. "That necklace carries the will of all those before you who dared to do just that."
Silent tears streamed down Mito's face. She'd cried so much that she was surprised she still had it in her.
"He was so proud of you, Mito," Ensui had said, his hands heavy on her shoulders.
"What's the point?" Mito whispered to her reflection. "When I can't even change his fate."
She tightened her grip on the necklace, a cruel whim whispering in her ear to crush it. Crush it, like the Kyuubi had tried to crush her. Like this war had crushed Satto. But it didn't break, didn't even crack.
"I didn't even get to apologize," she said around the knot in her throat. "I didn't... I didn't—"
I didn't get to say goodbye.
Mito squeezed the small crystal between her fingers, pouring her pain, her sadness, all of her into it.
Because unlike her, it could not break.
The Senju were scheduled to leave the next morning, and Mito found herself in her father's chambers. They hadn't discussed Hashirama's terms at all since that morning almost a week ago, and in the meantime Mito had done her best to help out with the restoration. She'd ended up working closely with Izuna, by chance, who'd brought her up to speed on Haruka. The girl was permanently blinded, and Mito offered her sincerest condolences.
"She did it for me, you know," Izuna had said out of the blue one day while he and Mito worked with some other Uchiha and Uzumaki clearing out debris from a trashed residential area. "She did it for me."
"She must care for you very much," Mito had said, remembering how close Haruka had seemed to be with Izuna and Madara despite their lack of actual blood relation.
"Yeah, I guess so." Izuna hadn't said anything else about it, and Mito didn't bring it up again. She didn't have siblings and she couldn't imagine what Izuna was going through. But she could understand a little of what it was like to live when others perished.
"Mito," Ensui said, shaking Mito from her thoughts. "Come in."
Mito peered at the papers he was hunched over at the table in his study. Nearby, Inari was asleep on a mat and breathing deeply. He'd wanted to help with the restoration and had tuckered himself out.
"What are you looking at?" she asked.
"A draft of the treaty the Senju prepared." He leaned forward over the table on his arms and heaved a tired sigh. "Already signed by Hashirama."
Mito pulled the document toward her and read in silence. It wasn't a long treaty, succinct and to the point. Just as Hashirama had said, it promised clear autonomy for Uzushiogakure in exchange for soldiers to stay with the main Senju forces.
"I don't like our options, but I'm afraid Hashirama has a point. This isn't something we can avoid forever. It's only a matter of time before others will try to acquire us, and who's to say they'll offer us such magnanimous terms?"
Mito stared at the unsigned treaty, her gaze heavy. She put a hand on her father's. "We should accept the alliance," she said.
Ensui gave her a pointed look. "I have to say I'm surprised to hear you say that after the way you spoke to Hashirama the other day."
Mito's gaze fell. The room felt hot, and she was grateful for the bun keeping her hair off her neck.
"What's on your mind?" Ensui asked.
"Hashirama's right," she said. "It's not about gaining an enemy; it's about securing Uzushiogakure's future. We lost nearly half our military force in this battle, and that was with the Uchiha and Senju backing us up. We can't afford not to make an ally out of the Senju."
Ensui studied his only daughter carefully and rested his chin on his steepled hands. "An alliance with the Senju would put us at odds with the Uchiha."
Mito thought of Madara. This would be the end of any friendly relations between Uchiha and Uzumaki. She was no fool. Hashirama was asking a lot, but he was also offering more than the Uzumaki could afford to turn down.
"The Uchiha haven't offered us the same deal. They're notoriously isolated. They keep their allies at arm's length. The Senju are more accommodating. Hashirama's most trusted general is an outsider. And we share ancestral ties with them."
"But it's more than that," Ensui said.
Mito met his eyes. "Hashirama wants peace," she said softly. "A true peace. It's what he's always wanted."
"And you think he can really accomplish that? After everything?"
She remembered the first time she'd met Hashirama, how he'd cheered her up effortlessly. The way he'd defended his ideas of peace to his stubborn family, to her father, even to her.
"If there's such a thing as peace, I'll find it."
It was more than a dream to him. So much more.
"Yes. If anyone can do it...I think he can."
And then the feuding will stop.
"You know peace won't come tomorrow. It could take years, even lifetimes. Don't underestimate the power of a grudge. It's a curse that only grows stronger with the passage of time."
Madara's hatred echoed in her head, hatred that had won him the right to lead the Uchiha, to exact revenge on Tajitsu.
"I believe in you," she'd confided in him under the cover of darkness.
Which was stronger: Mito's faith or Madara's hatred? Only one had driven the Kyuubi out of Uzushiogakure, but in the end, it had not been enough.
"I know," she said. "But curses can be broken. All you need is the right tool."
Ensui rubbed his mouth. "I won't lie to you. We can't go on as we are. Hashirama's right about that. I would prefer an alliance with the Senju over the Uchiha when it comes down to it. But negotiations are about give and take. We'll be giving up something precious for this. We can't forget that."
"I won't forget," she said softly.
"All right, I'll send for Hashirama in the morning before he departs. I suppose I should put together a garrison to accompany him as part of the alliance."
"I want to go."
Ensui frowned. "Excuse me?"
She'd thought about it a lot over the last week. There were drawbacks, but they paled in comparison to the opportunities that awaited her if she took the chance. To leave home, her family, for a destiny she'd never once imagined for herself. It terrified her so much that just thinking about it now made her hands shake. She tucked them behind her back so her father wouldn't see.
"You heard me, Father. I want to go."
Ensui stood up. "Absolutely not. Are you out of your mind? You are a princess of the Uzumaki clan."
"I'm a soldier who helped save our home," Mito said fiercely.
Ensui's eyes flashed in anger at her outburst, but Mito didn't give him a chance to catch his breath.
"Please, Father, listen to what I want for once in your life."
Ensui snapped his mouth shut, stunned. Mito never raised her voice to him, but right now there was no force on Earth that could keep her silent. Not anymore.
"Satto... Satto is gone," she said, struggling to keep her voice from cracking as she admitted it aloud for the first time since Ensui had broken the news to her. "And he left me this." She touched the blue crystal necklace Ensui had passed on to her as per Satto's wishes. "Do you know why? Because he knew I could do more for the Uzumaki than simply marry a rich lord and produce sons.
"I don't defy you, Father. I promise I will marry one day and uphold our family's legacy. But I'll also fight to protect that legacy. It's what I was meant to do, I know that now."
She thought of the Kyuubi and how it had overpowered not just her, but Madara and Hashirama, too. The best of their clans, as Madara had put it. Nothing but dust mites in the face of that beast.
"But I'm not strong enough yet. I have to know more. I have to keep fighting. Monsters can be killed. Hashirama's right about the troubles of the mainland reaching us here. They're here to stay, and I'll fight to protect our family until I draw my last breath, I swear it."
She looked at her hands, hands that had commanded the golden chains that had kept the Kyuubi at bay. That had saved Madara. Chains that could bind destiny. "Satto was right. I can... I can do things others can't. And I have a responsibility to our family to use that power to protect them. I want to protect them. I don't need your blessing, but I'd like to have it if you'll give it."
Ensui was silent for a long while as he studied her. Mito held her head tall and waited for him to say something, anything. Finally, he released the breath he was holding.
"You're so much like your mother," he said, defeated.
Mito's resolve faltered. Ensui never talked about her mother, who'd died in childbirth. Mito had known her only in pictures and the occasional passing comment.
"Once she set her mind to something, she fought with all her might to see it through." Ensui's gaze was wistful as he remembered, but he didn't smile. "But I suppose she wasn't quite strong enough to see everything through to the end."
He touched a finger to the crystal necklace hanging over Mito's sternum. "Maybe...you are. Satto believed it." He sighed and let his hand fall. "I'm not blind. I know you have something extraordinary. I only, well... I suppose I only ever wanted the best for you. A chance to raise your own family. A chance your mother never had."
Mito's throat tightened, and tears threatened to fall.
"I knew this day would come someday, but I didn't think it would be so soon. I thought maybe you might want to stay."
Mito blinked away her tears and hugged her father. He tensed.
"I have to do this, Father. These Bijuu, the wars, it's so much bigger than all of us. Please, let me go."
They can't do it alone.
He slowly raised his arms and encircled her waist. "I've known for a long time that I would never be able to stop you."
They broke apart, and Mito wiped her tears.
"I'm proud of you, you know," he said. "You've become a fine woman."
"Thank you, Father," she said, meaning it with every fiber of her being. "Thank you."
He kissed her forehead, and she laughed through her tears.
Hashirama finished donning his armor, which was scratched and cracked in places from the invasion despite the thorough cleaning he'd given it. When he got back to the mainland, he would have to commission one of the armorers for a new suit.
"Any word?" Tobirama stood in the doorway to Hashirama's room, already dressed and ready to depart.
"No," Hashirama said glumly. "I thought for sure Ensui would accept my terms after everything. I s'pose there's not much else I can do."
Tobirama grunted. "Their loss. If they're too stupid to see the opportunity, then they're not worth it."
"The alliance was your idea."
"Yeah, well, I can't control for stupidity."
Hashirama finished dressing and exited the compound with Tobirama. Their barge awaited at the beach. The Uchiha were leaving as well, and he looked for Madara among the crowd some hundred yards away but didn't spot him. His heart sank.
I guess this really was kind of a dream.
Tōka and Sasuke had already boarded the ship set to take the Senju garrison—what was left of it—back to the mainland to rejoin its main force. Hashirama hung back and looked over Uzushiogakure, still somewhat in ruins but on its way to recovery. The sky was blue and cloudless, and the morning sun was bright and warm. Even the ominous whirlpools seemed calm and quiet, unwilling to disturb such a beautiful day. If only Hashirama's mood were a little brighter.
The fog horn sounded, signaling the ship's imminent departure. Sighing, Hashirama turned away from the island. It was time to leave. He trudged into the shallow water up to his knees and began to climb the gangway up onto the ship's starboard bow.
"Hashirama!" a familiar voice called.
Mito, dressed in full whalebone armor, led a group of Uzumaki soldiers, also dressed for battle and carrying packs and trunks of supplies. He walked back the way he came without thinking, curious.
"Mito," he said, almost a question.
She and the other Uzumaki soldiers splashed towards him, and he met her among the crashing waves.
"Leaving already?" she asked.
Hashirama took in her appearance, her cheeks slightly flushed from the exertion of running all the way out here. Her long hair was pulled back in a thick ponytail, the bangs framing her face. Decked out in full armor she looked older, more seasoned. Flashes of her floating high in the sky surrounded by golden chains appeared in his mind. The look in her misty eyes as she turned back and saw Madara and him running to back her up, the happiest sight she'd ever seen.
"That's the plan," he said.
She extended a hand to him, and he noticed she held a scroll. Frowning, he accepted it.
"What's this?" he asked.
"Your treaty," she said.
Hashirama sputtered. "What?!"
She waited for him to open the scroll, and sure enough there was Ensui's signature and seal binding the Uzumaki to the Senju in a political, military, and economic alliance until the end of time, until otherwise mutually amended. Hashirama stared openly at the document, hardly believing his eyes.
"A-Are you serious? This is for real?" he said, hardly able to contain his hope and excitement.
"Oh my god, I can't believe this! I mean, I can believe it but I can't believe it, you know?"
She laughed, and the Uzumaki soldiers at her back chuckled amongst themselves. "Believe it," she said, grinning brightly.
Hashirama rolled up the scroll and ran a hand through his hair, his smile almost hurting with how bright it was. "Wow, I mean, wow. I'm honored, really, like you have no idea. Oh! I should go speak with Ensui! I gotta thank him in person!"
Mito shook her head. "No need. He sends his regards and his blessing. And us, of course."
Hashirama looked over the soldiers behind her. "Wait, you're all coming? You too?"
"If that's agreeable?"
"Well, yeah! Wow, best day ever!"
He covered his mouth, embarrassed at his own enthusiasm. Tobirama would have let him have it if he saw how unprofessional Hashirama was being.
"What's taking so long?" Tobirama called from the quayside.
"The Uzumaki signed the treaty!" Hashirama called up. "They accepted the alliance! And Mito's coming with us!"
Tobirama made the most appalling face, and Hashirama was amazed at how large his eyes looked, like they'd actually popped out of his head.
"What?!" he sputtered.
"That's what I said!"
Mito put a hand over Hashirama's and the scroll he still held. "My father's putting his trust in you, Hashirama. He—I want to see this peace you keep talking about. One day."
"I promise you," he said, placing his hand over hers and leaning close. "I promise we'll do it. You and me, and Madara, too. We'll do it together."
She smiled, but there was something sad about it. He had the sudden urge to pull her close in a true embrace, but he refrained. It wouldn't be appropriate.
"I believe you," she whispered.
Hashirama was beside himself with happiness and relief. He waved to the soldiers behind Mito and eagerly welcomed them on board. Tobirama shouted for them to hurry the hell up, the sooner they left the sooner they could get off this godforsaken ocean. Hashirama barely heard him, delighted as he announced to anyone on board that the Uzumaki would be joining them. Tōka, Sasuke, and others vocally welcomed the Uzumaki soldiers and helped them settle in. To Sasuke's immense delight, Lena was among the handful of skilled civilians that had come with Mito to share their knowledge and specialized skills with the Senju clan, and he picked her up and spun her around, laughing.
The ship weighed anchor and set off from the island at a steady pace. Tobirama disappeared from the crowd and hung over the edge with his head in his hands, preparing for a miserable journey. Hashirama couldn't stop smiling as he spoke to the various Uzumaki soldiers that had joined his brigade, welcoming them all personally, learning names, memorizing faces.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of Mito, who'd distanced herself from the group and stood at the edge of the barge leaning over the railing. Her eyes were heavy and her jaw was set as she gazed into the distance. Hashirama followed the direction of her gaze back to shore where the vessel preparing to transport the Uchiha was still docked and loading passengers.
"There's no one like you."
Madara's whispered confession echoed in Hashirama's head, guilty, a secret that wasn't his to know, but he did know it, and even his most brilliant smile and this happy day darkened just a little remembering it.
End of Part I