He was fighting again in the plainlands: Hashirama paced, agonized, as word of Madara's latest exploits reached the heart of the council.
"It is to be expected." Tobirama had said. Hashirama wrung his hands while his brother stared at him, as if in rebuke. "Uchiha Madara is a rabid dog. That he chooses now to rampage against the neighboring clans is not a great surprise."
"He has his reasons," Hashirama had said, but Tobirama looked at him stonily. "The Hyuuga were making threats against us. He probably went out to negotiate-"
"By eyeballing them into tiny little pieces. Yes, older brother, that is exactly how we should negotiate."
Hashirama's mouth thinned, remembering.
It was a growing problem. Though the Senju and the Uchiha had called a truce, that did not stop the neighboring clans from fighting: already feudal lords were negotiating with the Nara and the Yamanaka clans to the east, and the Hyuuga had used the opportunity to declare war against the Uchiha. Two Uchiha children were targeted and killed, much to the horror of everyone in the village:
"What good is a village if we cannot even protect our own?"
There was a sound, the flap of the tent pushed open, and Hashirama turned to see Madara limping forward.
"Madara," Hashirama said.
Madara looked up at him. His clothes were wet. Strands of long hair stuck to his back and face.
And then his legs buckled. Hashirama rushed forward, taking his weight against his shoulder.
"You're injured," Hashirama said. Patiently, as if talking to a small and very difficult child. "Let me help you."
Madara scowled. Hashirama leaned him against his shoulder, helping him inside. "I'm not even going to ask what it was you were doing," Hashirama said.
"I was taking action," Madara said. He winced, limping carefully and sitting at the edge of the bed. "While others waste their words and pray for a solution, I went and I found another way."
"Did you kill anyone?" Hashirama said.
"What do you think?"
"I think I shouldn't ask," Hashirama said, and he leaned Madara forward.
There was a deep gash just to the left of Madara's breast plate, where a sword or spear had managed to make its way through a crack in the armor. Madara was watching Hashirama the way a dangerous but wounded animal would, with slitted eyes and chakra simmering just beneath the surface. "I'm going to remove your breast plate," Hashirama said, and he gingerly approached him, one hand carefully pressing against Madara's shoulder.
First there was the breast plate, which was dented and scratched. The red paint was chipping in small flakes, and when Hashirama removed the arm guards, he could see the distressed places in the leather under-coverings, shallow cuts and frayed ends from where sharp objects had pierced through the metal.
"Raise your arms," Hashirama said. With difficulty Hashirama pulled off Madara's plate armor and winced when he saw it, the slow spread of dark blood seeping through the fabric of Madara's shirt; he was holding the wound with one tight fist, thin red smears of it dripping against Madara's hand.
"I need to take off your shirt," Hashirama said, and he watched as Madara braced himself, tensing slightly as Hashirama tugged at the fabric. The shitagi was damp with blood and rain and sweat, and Madara grunted as Hashirama pulled it off, the clots in the wound opening, slightly.
"Let me see," Hashirama said. Madara scowled, fist pressed against the wound. Hashirama gently covered his hand. "I won't hurt you, I promise."
"I am fine," Madara said.
"You're not fine. You're bleeding into the furniture."
Madara scowled. Slowly, Hashirama unwrapped the soiled bandages covering Madara's wounds.
The gash was long and jagged, sliced hard against the side of Madara's ribs and the meat of his back. But it wasn't deep, and it didn't reach any vital organs. Slowly, Hashirama let his fingers map the grain of Madara's skin, feeling currents of chakra flowing like water over bumps of stones.
Madara's muscles were tense. Hashirama could see it in how he clenched and unclenched the muscle of his jaw, the strap muscles of his neck tightening with the contact. His hair was matted, sticking to the damp skin of throat and collarbones, and there was a sharp smell of rain and sweat, which was more pungent when Hashirama pushed back the wet tangle of Madara's hair, exposing the line of his neck and back.
"It's not like you to get so injured," Hashirama said. He plied a layer of chakra on Madara's wounds, remembering how their mother used to heal him when he was younger: cool hands pressed on scraped knees and bruised egos, a necessary technique when faced with older, more experienced men. "What happened to your Susanoo?"
"I didn't use it," Madara said.
"I decided not to."
There is only so much reading between the lines Hashirama can do, but judging from the latest quarrel - unkind words from Madara's own kinsmen, vicious rumors that Madara had willingly stolen his brother's eyes - Hashirama could understand why Madara had gone without it. He fought as if he had something to prove.
"You should have used it," Hashirama said. Madara glanced up at him, frowning. "I don't like it when you get hurt."
Madara sneered. "Because it makes more work for you?" Madara said.
Hashirama's jaw tightened. "Because you're my friend, and I don't like seeing you in pain."
Madara said nothing. Hashirama frowned, focusing his attention on the shallow scrapes that peppered Madara's side and flank, the bruises along his collarbone and the boot-shaped welt on his ribs. He moved closer to him, molding his chakra to the shape of Madara's body, whose chakra was disordered and chaotic, electric pinpricks of a thousand tiny silver blades.
Madara leaned close, and Hashirama let his hand slide across the ridges of Madara's abdomen, concentrating on a particularly vicious blow to the solar plexus. Madara's chakra was tortured and violent, swirling in turbulent eddies, and Hashirama let his hands guide them to a soothing warmth, feeling the tension in Madara's body lessen and slack, until he was physically leaning against him.
"No one touches me like this," Madara said, quietly. "Perhaps my mother, once, when I was a child. But no one has ever sat this close to me, since."
"You don't use healing jutsus in your clan?" Hashirama said.
"This is different," Madara said. "I have lost everything, and yet you've stayed by my side," Madara said. Red eyes flicked upward, unfocused. "Why would you do that? Why waste your time, caring for someone like me?"
Hashirama looked at him. His shoulders were hunched. There were deep shadows under the creases of Madara's eyes.
No one trusted Uchiha Madara. Not the Senju, who look at him with veiled contempt. And not even the Uchiha, whom Madara had sworn to protect. Hashirama had seen it himself, in how his kinsmen looked at Madara with slanted eyes, and how the Uchiha of the village openly jeered at him. He looked at Madara, and at the callouses of his hands, and understood that he had nothing and no one. And suddenly, irrationally, Hashirama was filled with a quiet rage.
"Who hurt you?" Hashirama said.
"It doesn't matter."
"It matters to me," Hashirama said, and a shadow fell over Madara's eyes.
"Why are you like that?" Madara said. "Why do you have to care?"
"Because you're my friend," Hashirama said again.
"Friend," Madara said. "What exactly is a 'friend'? You toss that term around so easily. Everyone is a friend to Senju Hashirama. Even his enemies are his friends."
"Why are you angry?" Hashirama said, and Madara reached for him with a sudden, savage motion, grasping him by the nape of his neck and pulling him forward.
"Idiot Senju," Madara said, and the words were ragged. Harsh. "You are more to me than just a friend. Without you, my life has no meaning. You know not the depths of my feelings for you."
Fingers dug into the back of Hashirama's scalp. Dark eyes stared deep into his, unblinking.
"I feel the same way," Hashirama said, and searched the face that was only a finger's breadth away. "You're my family. You're another brother to me."
The words hung, low-lying clouds of a distant fog. He felt the hand behind his neck drop.
"Of course," Madara said. Hashirama couldn't see his eyes.
Rain lashed against the fur-lined flaps of the tent, and with each gust of wind Madara could see how the darkness of the sky was juxtaposed against the warm orange glow of their tent: dark trees, leaves whipping violently off thin branches, the storm raged in harsh torrents of horizontal rain.
"It is cold," Hashirama had said, a few hours earlier, and Madara had glanced behind him, frowning as Hashirama unrolled the sleeping mats, matter-of-factly. "You're still wounded. We should share our bed to conserve our warmth. Unless you're uncomfortable with that sort of thing?"
"No," Madara said, and then amended, "I'm not," and he laid down next to him.
Now Madara watched as the shadows moved violently against the fabric of the tent, keeping a measured distance between their bodies and trying to fall asleep. Gingerly, he palmed the crest of his ribs, tracing what would have been the jagged edge of scars were it not for Hashirama's expert healing. There was nothing, just a thin line of pink translucent skin, smooth and pale snaking across his body like an arabesque. Though his wounds were healed, there was a dull pain at the seat of his chest, hurt and loneliness like a nagging ache: if he were a brave man, he would drag his fingers into the silk of Hashirama's hair and pull him forward, lips finding the tender curve of his neck and jaw.
But he was not a brave man, and the confession fell in the face of Hashirama's good intentions. He watched as Hashirama slept, the slow rise and fall of his breathing under the blanket, the feel of warm skin like the shadows of trees. Reflexively, he thought of Izuna and how he had stood vigil in his bedroom in the days before his death, and he felt the same ache.
The pain in his heart was like cracking glass, but Hashirama sighed in his sleep, and pulled him closer.