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m nemonica ([personal profile] ezyl) wrote in [community profile] narutobang_fic2010-09-01 06:49 am

day three. "Man of Dreams" [2/4]


Mito's gaze, eyes shining, was locked on Madara's face (that smile of his). And something in her face was... Hashirama couldn't identify it, but her expression felt familiar, somehow... "Thank you. That's, uh..." From her facial expression Hashirama could imagine her thinking wait, what should I say next say next? What's appropriate here? When it came to politics, he had days like that. (When it came to Madara, he had many days like that.) "I mean, thank you very much, right? For your assistance."

Madara cocked an eyebrow at Hashirama to see if he wanted to jump in, and when he didn't, Madara cheerfully turned to Mito himself and said, "You're quite welcome." Having gladly taken credit for providing accommodations, Madara immediately transferred the burden of actually finding accommodations to Hashirama. "What were those ideas you had, Hokage-sama?" Mito turned her attention to Hashirama, and Madara's eyes said your move, Senju.

"Ah. Yes. Well." Hashirama gave them both a helpless look that he hoped didn't actually look helpless. "I'm afraid we're going to have to improvise a bit, Mito-san. Konohagakure isn't exactly set up for accommodating guests yet."

"Oh. I see," Mito said. "Well, I suppose we could... set up tents somewhere, right...?" She stared dubiously through the window behind Hashirama, out at the rain.

"That won't be necessary," Hashirama said, trying desperately to think of a place to put the delegates. "I'm sure we can find somewhere for your party to stay," hopefully. He suddenly got an idea, and glanced at Madara. "In fact, there's a cluster of unused buildings we may be able to appropriate for you..." Your turn, Madara. (Hashirama hoped Madara would forgive him.)

The emotions in Madara's eyes were, in order, terror, rage, and mirth. "Oh yes, that's right," he said quickly, and addressed Mito. "The Hokage had mentioned putting your party in some of the neighborhoods constructed for civilian use." Several civilian families had come to Konoha, asking if they could move in, in order to benefit from the ninja clans' protection; and in return, they would provide their various services to the ninja citizens of Konoha. Already, a few small, scattered residential zones had sprung up for them. Hashirama was pretty sure all the houses had already been taken, but, if Madara knew of some that weren't... Madara added, regally, "I apologize on behalf of Hokage-sama if you find it a bit... disrespectful that he wants the ambassadors from Uzushiogakure no Sato to lodge with civilians." Says the man who offered to write up a list of the reasons why the ambassadors should be pushed to the edge of civilization. Your turn again, Senju.

Hashirama tried to glare at Madara, and didn't quite get there. "I would have been happy to ask a clan to share its complex with the delegates, but I seem to recall that the leader of the only clan with enough free space was threatening mutiny if I tried to put any guests in his complex."

"Ah, that's right," Madara said, all innocence. "A brilliant leader. But a terrible team player. It's like he thinks he runs this village or something."

Hashirama choked back a laugh. He wondered if the people who went around criticizing Madara knew how closely he was listening to them. "I'm sure he means well."

"I'm sure he'd be embarrassed to hear you say so."

Mito had a look on her face—eyes squinted, slightly frowning—that said she knew there was some joke here that she was missing but couldn't quite figure out what it was. Hashirama quickly got back on topic. "Why don't you go get the list of uninhabited houses in the... non-clan neighborhoods?"

"The civilian neighborhoods, you mean?" Madara straightened up and headed for the door. "Should I bring the map, too?"

"Yes, thank you."

"I'll be back in a few minutes."

Hashirama tried not to stare, but he did watch Madara from behind as he left the office. (As it happened, so did Mito.)

As soon as the door closed, Mito lost all signs of professionalism and leaned over Hashirama's desk, eyes shining with excitement. "Who—was—that?!"

No question who she was referring to. "Uchiha Madara-sama," Hashirama said. "The leader of the Uchiha clan, one of the founders of Konohagakure no Sato, and likely the strongest shinobi in the world." Hashirama didn't even think before heaping the praise on Madara. In many cases, he would stop beforehand—just to think about how his audience might interpret his... enthusiasm. But something in Mito's face was so familiar, something he understood... He doubted that would be a problem with her. Besides, what was wrong with praising Madara?

She seemed to hear the words with no notice of who was saying them. "He's an Uchiha?!" Hashirama nodded, but couldn't get a word in edgewise. Mito's eyes squinted again in concentration, as she processed that. "Uchiha Madara-sama... So—so, that's what the Sharingan looks like, right?" (Hashirama nodded again.) "I'd always heard—from your clan's reports—that the Sharingan was, that it looked all bloody or like fire and brimstone or something but... He's gorgeous, right?"

Hashirama grinned. He didn't know why this amused him so much. "That's the general consensus." (Actually, Hashirama had never really asked other people what they thought about how Madara looked, but... if he, a totally uninvolved third party, could notice it, surely it was self-evident?)

"That's what all their eyes look like, right?"

"Only part of the time. Most of them..." How to explain this? "Their eyes... change color, when they use the Sharingan. The rest of the time their eyes are pretty normal. Madara's the only one I know who always keeps his Sharingan on." Much to Hashirama's distraction.

"Do all the Uchiha look like him, right?"

(Hashirama was beginning to realize that Mito's tendency to stick "right" to the end of every sentence was more of a verbal tic than anything else.) "Well... they all look a bit similar, but... Madara-sama's really in a category all his own."

"I can imagine." She wasn't even looking at Hashirama anymore, she was staring off at something only she could see. "That's... he is gorgeous."

That time, he laughed. "Yeah," he said. "He is."

"He actually lives in Konohagakure, right?"

"Of course, in the Uchiha complex." Well, supposedly. Whenever Hashirama went looking for him in the complex, it seemed nobody knew where he was (unless the Uchiha were just lying, but why would they do that?) and Hashirama seemed to run into him all over the place at all kinds of crazy times of day and night. Plus, he seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time in the half-constructed Hokage Residence.

Mito's eyes were so, so bright, so eager. "Is he single?"

Pause. "Excuse me?"

There was the briefest fraction of a second of awkward silence, during which Hashirama realized he had said something very, very wrong. (As it happened, so did Mito.)

Mito quickly said, "I'm sorry, Hokage-sama, that was—that was very inappropriate of me. Right? I shouldn't have—"

"No, I'm sorry, I just wasn't expecting... er, yes, I think he is single, at least I haven't heard that he's—"

They both fell silent, shared one awkward look, and glanced away from each other. Hashirama didn't think twice about Mito's intentions, because he was so busy berating himself for saying too much. (As it happened, so was Mito.)

"My apologies. I shouldn't have asked." She didn't look up.

"No, it's perfectly fine." He didn't look up. "I was just surprised, because, you see... Ah, Madara-sama lost his brother, some time ago. I'm not sure how long the traditional mourning period is in the Uchiha clan, but as far as I know he's still in mourning. So I expect he isn't looking into courting anyone right now." Oh, that was the dumbest excuse ever. If Madara's brother had died before the initial Senju/Uchiha truce, that meant he'd been dead over two years now...

Mito inhaled sharply. "Oh, is that so! I'm sorry to hear that. I didn't have any idea, right?"

"No, I wouldn't expect you to, there's no reason why you would. But you understand."

"Of course, absolutely."

And they could finally glance at each other again and exchange sheepish smiles. On some level, of course, they both knew the excuse was a load of garbage. But it allowed them both to save face. Mito had not behaved inappropriately, because because she had not been made aware of certain information and thus wasn't at fault; Hashirama had not reacted based on any personal feelings toward Madara, but because of certain knowledge he had about Madara. When Mito and Hashirama actually made eye contact again, they both had some small amount of gratitude in their eyes—in Mito's, because Hashirama had given her an excuse to maintain her dignity; and in Hashirama's, because Mito had willingly bought his excuse.

The door opened, and they both started guiltily. Madara paused, partway into the room, and scanned both their faces before proceeding. "Am I interrupting something?" he asked, watching them suspiciously.

They both hastened to assure him that he was not.

Not much more progress was made in that meeting—not that much needed to be made, thankfully. Madara pointed out all the houses that were available as temporary lodging in the civilian neighborhoods, Mito eventually stammered out that any of these available houses would be fine, so if she could please be informed which houses they would be lodged in she would be grateful; and she had better take the list of houses back with her, to tell the others where they would be staying, if she were allowed to do so. Of course, Hashirama said, she was allowed, but they had to keep the master list here. If she could wait a moment for Hashirama to find someone to make a copy of the documents...

Which was when Madara stepped forward, gave Hashirama an oh, come on look, pulled several papers and a pen out of Hashirama's desk, started his eyes spinning, and in several seconds had copied the entire map and accompanying list of properties. Mito just gaped, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, as Madara circled a few random houses, and then handed over the papers.

"You're welcome," Madara said.

Mito took a moment to recover from her shock before she managed to get out, "Thank you, Madara-sama."

She stood, bowed, and almost ran for the door. She stopped one last time to cast a bright-eyed glance over her shoulder, before she left.

As soon as the door shut, Madara glanced at Hashirama, smirking. "You're welcome, too."

Hashirama half-smiled. "Thanks. I should have thought of that." (Actually, he had, but he was still scared to actually ask Madara to do things for him. Anything to avoid offending him.) "I guess I'm still not used to what the Sharingan can do."

"Funny," Madara said. "You seemed quite accustomed to it on the battlefield."

To Hashirama, the cadence and undertones of the comment sounded almost exactly the same as those behind a comment like "That's not what you said last night." The fake-innocent raised-eyebrows look Madara gave him when he turned to stare did nothing to lessen that impression. Had Madara meant—surely he hadn't—but what if he were trying to say—it was just a comment about the battlefield—but what about seeing underneath the underneath—was there even any underneath to see—but, but the obsession, that Hashirama had, from the battlefield—couldn't Madara possibly have the same—

(Dammit dammit dammit Hashirama would you listen to yourself, Madara is not trying to make advances at you, what is wrong with you for thinking that, what is wrong with you for wanting that—)

The comment left him so flustered, in fact, that it wasn't until after Madara had dropped his fake innocent look and begun warily analyzing Hashirama's expression that he came back to his senses. He quickly looked away from Madara.

"Well... sure," he said, trying his hardest to sound normal. (Say something clever say something clever hurry up!) "I just never equated the Sharingan with paperwork, I suppose." It was meant to be a half-joke, but Hashirama didn't even attempt smiling, because he knew it wouldn't work.

There was a long, hard silence from Madara. (Could silences be hard?) "I see." (Well, his tone was hard...)

After a moment, Madara stacked all the papers on Hashirama's desk together, picked them up, and headed for the door. "I've got other work to do," he said, almost casually. "By the way, I hope you're aware of what you just did?"

Hashirama's blood froze. (Could blood freeze?) That was never a good sentence. Had Madara picked up on something? Did he suspect that Hashirama, that he— "What?" What could he be talking about, maybe... oh, perhaps— "Oh, Madara-sama, I hope you weren't offended by, uh..." By the fact that Hashirama had said he was sure Madara meant well? "I wouldn't have actually put the delegates in your complex—"

"Not that," Madara said. "You just let an unknown kunoichi, claiming to be representing Uzushiogakure but neither presenting any evidence nor arriving with any other Uzushio ambassadors, waltz out of your office with a detailed map and full schematics of every structure in this village."

Hashirama stared at Madara. Oh. Hell.

"You really didn't notice?" Fury danced through Madara's eyes. "Even after that ridiculous story—a bunch of ninja getting a cart stuck in the mud, not being able to get it free themselves, and staying behind to guard it? And you bought that?!" For a moment, Madara... changed. From the sullen, sarcastic, secretive man who had consented for over a year to helping lead Konoha from the shadows, into the warrior Hashirama had known before he'd even learned his name. This was the man who had once said he would give his life to defend or avenge his clan. This was the man Hashirama had first fallen in—

(no no no shut up shut up)

And the look on Madara's face was one that usually indicated he'd start breathing fire any second now. "You didn't even notice," he snarled. "You call yourself the leader of your ridiculous village and that didn't occur to you? What happy world did you come from where there's no such thing as spies and traitors? I at least expected you to be able to tell me that you knew that there's an Uzumaki Mito, or that she presented some sort of credentials while I was gone—something!" Hashirama could say nothing. Oh hell. Madara, naturally, got angrier. "What in the name of the Six-Pathed Sage did you talk about with her?" He was only just barely not shouting. "I already know that you are a great many things, Senju, but I never suspected you were also one of those incompetent airheads who loses all powers of thought when a set of nipples walk into the room!"

Madara slammed the door.

Leaving behind a completely baffled Hashirama.

Wait.

Huh?

Wait wait wait what? What?

Oh. Now that Hashirama thought about it, Mito had come in completely soaked, had her kimono been clinging to her—

Madara thought that Hashirama had been eyeing her?! That he had been so engrossed in her breasts, of all things, that he had let her walk in and out of his office without a single skeptical thought entering his head? That, that was nearly as bad as suspecting the truth.

Any normal man (a man with nothing wrong with him, that is) would think, at that point, Madara must think I spend half my spare time chasing ladies. Hashirama thought Madara must suspect I'm a man of dreams.

Because wasn't it true? Wasn't it? Wasn't he one? Obviously this meant Madara must be half-skeptical that Hashirama was one, and if he was, then, then, then it was only the simplest of logical to leaps from "He was fantasizing about Mito, he must be a man of dreams," to "Why is he always staring at me...?"

He had to be overreacting oh please oh please let him be wrong, it wasn't like he was even interested in Mito, he hadn't even been leering at her—had he? He hadn't noticed himself noticing her, er... clothing, but he remembered it now, so obviously he had noticed, was that normal? On some unconscious level had he been lusting after her without even noticing? That was a ridiculous idea but if he were really a man of dreams, then he must have—

No. No. No. No, he reminded himself, he was not a man of dreams. He would have been if he were in... love with Madara, if, if he actually wanted to... to... But he didn't. His emotions towards Madara were nothing strange, just...

(They had been enemies! They had fought each other and fought each other and fought each other dozens and hundreds of times! Of course there would be some effect on the way Hashirama thought about him now! It was all perfectly normal! There. Was. Nothing. NOTHING. Wrong. With. Him.)

... just an odd reaction to their former relationship, their relationship on the battlefield.

(So Hashirama told himself, over and over.)

He was not—dammit—not in love with Madara.

He was not a man of dreams, and he did not love Madara.

He was not a man of dreams, and he had not been leering at Mito.

He was not a man of dreams—but what if Madara thought he was?

From somewhere out in the hallway, Madara shouted furiously, "But you don't have a thing to worry about, oh mighty Hokage-sama! After all, Uchiha Madara-sama, your loyal and obedient subordinate, has taken precautions to ensure the safety of your village's most important citizens! He made sure to incorrectly copy the part of the map detailing the schematics of the Uchiha complex!"

Stab. Hashirama deserved that jab.

Hashirama did not waste thought on the fact that Madara was openly deriding him in a way that could be considered grossly insubordinate; nor did he wonder why Madara himself hadn't checked Mito's credentials, or why Madara had voluntarily copied the map and handed it over without a word of warning; nor did he wonder why Madara was satisfied with yelling at Hashirama and leaving, rather than proposing they send somebody to stop Mito and check her story out (and Hashirama, for his own part, felt so utterly doomed and defeated that it never crossed his mind that if she were a spy, she still could and probably should be stopped); nor did he wonder why Madara had taken the trouble to miscopy the Uchiha complex but left the rest of the map perfectly accurate.

(Of course, there was a simple answer to all of these unasked questions: Madara didn't actually give a damn what happened to Konoha as long as it didn't harm his own clan. But, of course, the questions remained unasked. Hashirama would not let himself find fault with Madara.)

Instead, he wasted thought on wondering what Madara thought about him—what did that mean, that he knew Hashirama was many things but hadn't suspected he was also an airhead? "Also"? And on wondering how in the hell he was going to make this monstrous blunder up to Madara. And wondering why he had been so off-kilter in the first place. And wondering why in the world he had said those things to Mito.

Hell, what had he said to her? Had he actually agreed when she'd said that Madara was gorgeous? Out loud? Why had he done that! Hashirama should not even be THINKING THOSE THINGS, much less agreeing with somebody else on them!

Hashirama dug the heels of his hands into his eyes, wrapped his fingers in his hair, and just sat there. He didn't know how long. Trying to find a way to convince himself that he was sane, that he was normal, that he wasn't a man of dreams.

And praying that he hadn't said too much to Mito.

---

Mito became the sole official ambassador from Uzushio to Konoha.

She was not, by the way, a spy.

(If she had been, she would have been dead within hours. Madara had followed her from the Hokage Residence all the way back to where she'd left the rest of the delegates, and watched them, concealed, until he saw one that he could identify as a ninja he knew to be an Uzumaki. And then he had returned to Konoha. People were so used to his being unlocatable for a few hours that they never knew he'd been gone. He never told anyone what he'd done.)

The cart they'd been bringing to Konoha had indeed gotten stuck. They could have pulled it out easily; however, considering that it was full of delicately-painted scrolls—some of which were "painted" with powders just barely brushed on—containing information about seals that they wanted to share with Konoha, they thought it would be safer to try to avoid jostling the cart or getting its contents wet. Better to wait for the ground to firm up a bit, dig the cart out, carefully lift it, and continue on.

They were going to offer these scrolls as a goodwill gesture of faith, sharing their village's secrets in hopes that Konoha would do the same. They were pleased and a little sheepish that Konoha had made an offering first, by giving them the map to their village.

They did not use the maps to blow up the village. Even though—judging by the uses for some of the seals they gave Konoha—they could have done so quite easily.

Madara, of course, made no indication that he planned on apologizing to Hashirama for his outburst.

Hashirama, of course, made no indication that an apology was at all necessary.

Apology? Apology for what? Madara could do no wrong.

---

The next day, the Uzushio delegates showed Hashirama the map they had received from Madara, when they were thanking Hashirama for so trustingly sharing his information with them. Trustingly. Sure. Madara had said that he had changed the layout of the Uchiha complex, hadn't he? As he spoke with the delegates, Hashirama idly glanced at the map, looking for the complex, to see if he could tell what had been changed.

He couldn't even find the Uchiha complex. How much had Madara changed it? Maybe he'd even altered the boundaries of the complex. Hashirama looked for the Senju complex to orient himself.

He couldn't find the Senju complex. He kindly asked the Uzushio delegation if he could borrow their map, he thought there might be a minor error. They kindly allowed him to do so.

He compared Madara's map to the original map of Konoha. All of the major roads were the same, every slight curve and corner recreated with Sharingan-guided perfection, stringing out from the Hokage Residence like the thin green veins growing from the stem of a leaf. All of the major landmarks were copied with equal perfection: the Residence itself, the wall around Konoha, the entrance gates, the line representing the ridge of the cliff above the village, and a few other lesser but still notable landmarks. And the civilian neighborhoods were marked correctly. Even the names of the streets and landmarks were written in the exact same handwriting as the original map. In other words, the map accurately and identically displayed all the landmarks the delegates needed to find their temporary quarters and all the notable landmarks they were sure to see and recognize anyway.

Nothing else was right.

Outside of those few landmarks, Hashirama couldn't find a single structure he recognized. There were plenty of labels, certainly. Every bit of space was stuffed with buildings, except for the undeveloped land that didn't have buildings yet but would soon—just like on the original map. But they were all wrong. Hashirama discovered a few places where, if he turned the map sideways or upside-down or backwards and moved it around a bit, he could get some of the smaller patches of buildings to almost line up, but not in any sort of way that made sense. It was like Madara had cut up the map of Konoha into tiny pieces, reassembled maybe a fifth of it, taken the other pieces, thrown out half of them, pasted down the remaining pieces wherever there was space in whatever order he grabbed them, and made up the rest based on what he thought would look good.

The entire map was neatly, precisely, and meticulously wrong.

All he told the delegates from Uzushiogakure was that the map was a bit out of date and he'd get them a new one.

He didn't directly ask Madara about the map. But a few days later he did ask, "Why did you only change the layout of the Uchiha complex on the map?"

Madara gave Hashirama a look as if to say the last thing in the world he wanted to do was have to answer this question. "I'm not going to tell you how to look after the rest of your village, Hokage-sama," he said. "If you want to hand a full map of Konoha over to a complete stranger, fine by me. I won't question your decision." (Never mind that he had questioned it, rather loudly and angrily.) "But as the person responsible for the safety of my clan, I'm not going to let you endanger them."

Hashirama didn't question Madara further. Madara looked, for a moment, like he considered adding something, but then thought better of it and didn't. Hashirama didn't mind.

He was happy.

Madara wasn't working against Konoha. And he wasn't just cooperating because he wanted Hashirama's job. And no matter what he said, he wasn't just reluctantly helping out merely because his clan told him to.

He had voluntarily done something—something small, but significant—to protect Konoha. Some of Madara's critics might have said, sure, of course he'll help Konoha if it will increase his own standing in the village, if it will get him that much closer to replacing Hashirama as the leader—but he hadn't done it to increase his own standing, because he hadn't even admitted what he'd done. He had even risked making himself look worse by claiming he'd only tried to protect his own clan.

So, what about this? This was proof that Madara wasn't looking for glory. This was proof that Madara considered himself not only responsible for his clan's safety, but for the whole village's safety. (In his mind, Hashirama was triumphantly defending Madara against some unreasonable detractor. Maybe Tobirama.)

That was all the evidence it took to satisfy Hashirama. But, really, he would have been satisfied with nothing at all.

---

Time passed.

For a while, things were stable, things were fine. Konoha grew, became something a bit less experimental, a bit more permanent.

For a while, nothing really changed. At least not for Hashirama.

Plenty of village politics happened, but those aren't really the focus here, are they?

The focus is Uchiha Madara.

The same focus that Hashirama has always had.

So time passed; nothing happened. Or, rather, very little happened.

The little things were the most important things. The little things were the only things Hashirama could share with Madara.

For a while—for, maybe it was a few months, maybe even to Konoha's second anniversary, maybe even to the fourth anniversary of that barely-remembered day when they had first met (why couldn't it have been more)— they were actually, by some measures, close. Almost daily, barring a few missions or other duties, they were around each other, or at least saw each other. Eventually, Hashirama could almost understand Madara. Almost, not quite, almost, never entirely, but almost. He understood how his clan worked, how he thought about his family. He understood Madara's relationship with his brother. He understood the way he looked, the way his family looked, in Madara's eyes. He could almost, almost, almost understand. And he only obsessed more.

(And Madara, even if he never admitted it, never even hinted at it, was starting to respect Hashirama. He had said he wanted peace, and he had peace. He had said he would respect the clans, and he respected the clans. He had said he thought of Madara as his equal, and he treated him as an equal. Even though he was so powerful. More than anything else, Madara respected power. Power was the only thing worth respecting. And Hashirama had more of that than anyone else Madara had ever met.)

(Yet, Hashirama still believed in love. With all his power, he still believed that love would save the world. And Madara didn't understand it, but. But, he had to respect it. Power was the only thing worth respecting, but the only people worth respecting were the ones who wielded power most efficiently. And Hashirama wielded his power efficiently enough to be able to do everything he wanted to do, without for a moment disrupting the illusion that he was succeeding through the use of love. Madara did not agree with Hashirama on anything—but he did respect him.)

(The way an unstoppable sword respects an indestructible shield.)

Time passed; nothing happened.

It was the most wonderful nothing of Hashirama's life.

---

The first idea Konoha imported from Uzushio: a better way to display their fancy leaf symbol.

They had been looking for a way to show it off. Since all the clans wanted to continue wearing their own clan symbols, nobody could think of a way to incorporate Konoha's symbol into everyone's clothing.

The solution came from Uzushiogakure. Forehead protectors.

Everybody knew what forehead protectors were. Very few people wore them, because it was just silly to imagine that such a tiny strip of metal would actually do any good. It was like strapping a piece of metal the size of your fist over your heart; you're still in trouble if somebody gets a kunai into your lungs around it.

But Uzushiogakure had turned it from a piece of armor into a fashion accessory. Every ninja in their village wore a forehead protector, with Uzushiogakure's symbol carved into its surface.

It was a brilliant solution. Now, ninja from Konoha didn't have to run around with big flags for people to know where they were from. Flags got rather cumbersome in the heat of battle, and they made for fairly obvious targets by enemy ninja.

There are always unexpected benefits to little alliances like this.

---

In the excitement of Uzushiogakure's new alliance with Konohagakure, everyone had completely ignored the fact that, at the same time Hashirama had been meeting with the new Uzukage, Madara had been meeting with the Land of Fire's daimyou.

This remained forgotten until (far after the fact), the daimyou sent a follow-up letter to the Hokage. (Hashirama would get used to the fact that the Land of Fire's daimyou was in the habit of taking his sweet time in responding to matters of diplomatic importance. This was one of the reasons why Konoha would grow into such a powerful political entity in its own right; the Hokage would often responded to crises, both domestic and foreign, long before the daimyou did.)

In his letter, the daimyou praised the progress of Konoha (as Madara had reported it), and agreed to support the village on several of the policies and projects they wanted to pursue.

One of these was greater latitude for Konoha to take on missions from clients outside of the Land of Fire; that had been something Madara in particular had wanted, and Hashirama was glad to see the daimyou had approved.

Another one was a change in Konoha's martial status; from a military force directly under the daimyou's control, to a semi-independent militia. Not so much that it didn't still answer to the daimyou, but enough so that it would have some small power to declare war—or to choose not to.

Hashirama stared at the daimyou's letter. That was something Hashirama had wanted. But he hadn't added that to the list of things he'd wanted Madara to discuss with the daimyou, because he'd thought the daimyou would never agree to... How did he even know Hashirama wanted to...

Then he remembered: hadn't he mentioned this to Madara, once? That he was worried about Konoha's being so completely under the daimyou's control, that if the Land of Fire declared war then Konoha would be dragged into it... Madara had scoffed at Hashirama's fears. Not because he thought they were implausible, but because he thought they were inevitable. He'd said that trying so hard to avoid war was pointless. He'd said, "As long as this world holds something worth fighting for, people will fight for it." Hashirama hadn't brought it up again.

And Madara had remembered that conversation? And Madara had brought it up to the daimyou, without any orders to discuss it? And Madara had convinced the daimyou to go along with Hashirama's wishes, even though he himself disagreed with them?

He hadn't even told Hashirama about what he'd done.

Why had he done that?

(Maybe Madara liked Hashirama! Oh joy, oh glorious day!)

At the end of the note, the daimyou praised Hashirama personally and all he had accomplished so far. He said that he was impressed with what he was doing with Konoha, and by extension, with what he was doing for the Land of Fire, and that he could clearly see that Hashirama was quite a strong and capable leader indeed.

Hashirama had no idea what the daimyou was talking about. He didn't think he'd really done anything all that significant yet.

What had Madara been saying about him...?

(Maybe he'd said, maybe he thought, maybe he felt—maybe as much as Hashirama had this this this... obsession, maybe Madara also... And maybe it was just politics. As much as Hashirama would like to believe that Madara might feel... well... it would take more than a friendly letter from the daimyou to honestly make him think that, maybe... oh, never mind. Why was he even thinking about this? What was wrong with him, this was stupid.)

So much for those people who assumed Madara was taking every opportunity possible to undermine Hashirama's authority.

(Oh glorious, marvelous day!)

---

Mito was the first foreign diplomat to visit Konoha on a regular basis—every month or couple of months, for a few days at a time, spent partially hashing the specifics of the treaty between their villages, but also on developing a joint strategy for foreign diplomacy between ninja villages. Uzushio had heard of a similar village springing up in the Land of Water; and Konoha had been approached by members of the Kamizuru clan, asking for advice for founding a ninja village in the Land of Earth. Soon, they would be needing a general strategy for dealing with each other—one that didn't need the support of all the daimyou, and that didn't rely on warfare. And sometimes they discussed the Wood-Release-and-seal-powered bijuu-sealing technique that their clans had developed, were perfecting, and intended to use as soon as possible.

And sometimes they discussed their mutual interests. (Or interest, really.)

Anyone who has gotten this far should know damn well what that interest is.

---

"I haven't seen Madara-sama in a while," Mito said, staring vaguely off into space, as if she were searching for him. (It's probably a good thing that Hashirama never knew how often he made that same facial expression when Madara came up.)

Neither of them had been talking about Madara. In fact, he hadn't even been vaguely related to the topic at hand. They had been discussing the possibility of a world forum of hidden ninja villages (they were both in favor of one) and how to convince the other villages it was a good idea. Really, they had been on topic. Really. They'd made a lot of progress, too.

But Hashirama hardly considered it a non sequitur to start talking about Madara. Why wouldn't they start talking about Madara? "He's on a mission outside of Konoha," Hashirama said. But Mito would want to know more. And Hashirama liked talking about Madara. "He was hired to locate and eliminate a clan that has declared war on the Land of Rivers. Personally hired." Because Madara was just that awesome.

"A whole clan?" Mito asked, her face scrunching a bit in worry.

Well, it was a small clan, but. "I'm sure that Madara-sama will be able to handle it, Uzumaki-dono."

Mito relaxed slightly. "I'm sure."

(Of course, completely eliminating a clan meant killing everyone. Not just shinobi and kunoichi but the civilian men and women, the children, the babies. Neither Mito nor Hashirama let themselves think about that. If Madara was doing it, it was fine, wasn't it? Of course it was.)

This was among the first of many diplomatic meetings between the leader of the Senju clan and Konohagakure, and a representative from the Uzumaki clan and Uzushiogakure. Most would think that it would be more fitting for the actual leader of the Uzumaki clan and Uzushiogakure to visit—the tentatively titled Uzukage—but in truth, Mito was more powerful and more internationally respected than he was. The only reason she wasn't the Uzukage was because she hadn't actually been the one to found the village. Everyone expected that, when the time came to choose a successor to the Uzukage (it seemed so far away, the possibility of having to choose successors), Mito would be the first choice—if she didn't first marry into another village for the purpose of political alliance. Hashirama was sure that she would be well-suited no matter what she did, though. She would make an excellent Uzukage, but she would make an equally excellent wife.

(Hashirama, as much as he respected women, wasn't exactly the most progressive man to ever live. He thought that it was just fine for a woman to decide to defer taking on the noble womanly duties of marriage and motherhood and do something else with her life as long as she was sure that was what she really wanted to do, but he was always a bit puzzled when a woman claimed that was what she really wanted. Had he somehow survived long enough to see what would become of his granddaughter, he would certainly be proud of her for taking up the Hokage mantle but he would be equally baffled at her for never marrying that Jiraiya she obviously liked so much, wasn't that what women were supposed to do? It's probably lucky he didn't live that long, because had he ever brought it up in that way, Tsunade might have broken a few of his ribs for being so infuriatingly old-fashioned.)

"It isn't the same here when he's not around, is it?" Mito said. "Here" could mean anything from the specific meeting room where they were talking, to the Hokage Residence, to Konohagakure no Sato all together. But Hashirama understood.

"No, it's not. Everything's just... so much more interesting, when he's around."

"You mean that in the best way possible, right?"

Hashirama laughed. She had a point. If Tobirama had been the one to call Madara's presence "interesting," it would have been an insult. "Of course I do. You know how much I—" (and the wrong word almost slipped out but did not) "think of Madara-sama," he said. "He does wonderful work for Konoha. And it's just a... a pleasure, working with him. Konoha really wouldn't exist without him..." (See? Now he's got that vaguely staring expression.)

Mito nodded, her eyes brightening with each word of praise for Madara, clearly hanging on to every word. "So, what else has he been doing lately?"

Well, forget the world forum, who cared about the world forum anyway?

"Let's see... He and I had a meeting with the Land of Fire's daimyou, a few weeks ago." With several daimyou, actually. The Land of Fire's had wanted to show off the leaders of his little ninja village to his peers. Naturally, he'd forgotten to send the letters out in a timely manner and had given them all of two days to prepare. (He treated Konoha like a pedigree pit bull. Useful as a guard dog, enjoyable to trot out and show off to friends, but at the end of the day not deserving much more respect than an expensive but ugly pet.)

"Really? Not just one of you, right?"

"Right, the daimyou insisted on meeting with us both. We had a field day trying to find somebody to fill in for us at the Hokage Residence." They eventually settled on Kagayaki Koori, who was an efficient and obedient bureaucrat, but too subservient to do much of anything ambitious on his own. At least, Madara had said, they knew he wouldn't try to take over Konoha while they were gone. But Mito wouldn't care to hear any of that.

Mito laughed politely. "So... Hokage-dono, you got to go with Madara-sama, right?"

"Yeah. Sure."

(Never mind that most other people would consider it ridiculous to suggest that the Hokage was the one tagging along with someone else to some event. Hashirama, at least, had sure felt like he was the one receiving an honor, getting to go somewhere with Madara.)

Eyes shining eagerly, hungry for any little bit of data, she leaned forward. "What did he wear?"

It would have been an utterly outrageous question.

If it weren't for the fact that Hashirama remembered.

And was more than excited to talk about it.

"He had this... beautiful red jacket, it was almost the same color as his eyes..."

That was what they talked about, when they weren't working.

The many interests they had in common.

(Within five minutes, they were trying to come up with a phrase to adequately describe the color and texture of Madara's hair. They were laughing at their own nonsense the whole time—but it didn't discourage them in the slightest.)

Somehow, they never ran out of things to talk about. The conversation was always stimulating, always interesting. It never got boring or repetitive. There were some days when they could talk for hours, until they were reminded of their other duties.

(They finally settled on "black like the smoke of a midnight fire." Aloud, they both agreed that it was quite a silly description and weren't they silly for thinking of it? Inside, they both felt like it was completely accurate.)

It was nice to know someone who shared their interests. Neither one ever found anybody else who did. Maybe that was just a side-effect of being at the top, Hashirama acting as leader of Konohagakure and Mito acting as the representative of Uzushiogakure, both of them in leadership positions in their clans. But whatever the reason, they never seemed to be able to talk to anyone else about their interests. At least, when Hashirama tried to talk about his interests, nobody else seemed intrigued, or they seemed a little uncomfortable with the subject matter, or at the very least Hashirama feared that they would start to get uncomfortable, he was always so nervous bringing up his interests... He never felt that way with Mito, though. They were free to talk about whatever they wanted with each other.

(Black like the smoke of a midnight fire. As cold as the moon and as hot as an inferno. Black deeper than the darkness of the sky, a black that chokes out starlight. Roiling and coiling and drifting and twirling and always burning burning black. A smoke that smothers, that sucks the oxygen, the air, the life out of you. A blackness that suffocates you in an inescapable, irresistible heat. A smoke that leads you to that all-concealing, all-revealing, all-consuming, all-seeing fire.)

Hashirama supposed he and Mito were just a lot alike.

(And that fire was his soul, heart, and blood. You could smell it in his words, you could see it in his beautiful beautiful eyes, you could feel it—if you were brave enough—you could feel it in his skin, his face, his lips...)

Yes. They were just a lot alike.

(Yes, yes, that was Madara, oh yes, that was Madara. If they could not hold him in their arms they would hold him in their gazes; when they could not hold him in their gazes they would hold him in their words.)

A thought that had been suggested to Hashirama, once or twice, by people who knew how well he and Mito got along: perhaps they should get married?

(Madara was the wedge between them. Eventually that wedge would vanish. And then they would have no choice but to fall into each other's arms—united by love, perhaps, but not united in love.)

It would be beneficial for their clans, their villages... it was something to think about, at least.

(They were just a lot alike.)

---

A word on feminism.

Hashirama's reasons for having to hide his true opinions on Madara are clear and make perfect sense. At least, in his mind. Mito had her own reasons for having to hide how she felt around anybody but a kindred spirit. Her reasons were probably a bit better than Hashirama's.

There were ways that normal people could act that the upper ranks of society could not. Konoha and Uzushio were villages that consisted of ninja, true, but a ninja is also a human, and although all ninja are equal on the battlefield (at least in terms of rank), politics are the same in all parts of society. Even the ninja parts.

A teen kunoichi could moon over a handsome shinobi, talking about how gorgeous he is and what a wonderful ninja he is. She could giggle about him with her friends, make up excuses to walk past him, fantasize about marrying him. That's just what girls do. Obviously. Since the primary function of a female is to get married and have children, it only makes sense if a girl on the verge of womanhood spends a majority of her time worrying about that all-important Other, that Man who shall be her husband and the father of her children. Obviously.

(As a side note, Mito had spent her adolescent years with her kimono hiked up to her knees so that she could prance across the surface of a wide river near her home village and to the other side, where she could be left in peace as she tried to develop a technique. She had been trying to create a technique that used both shape transformation—molding the chakra into a funnel—and nature transformation—making use of her personal affinity toward wind-natured chakra. She now used the result of her efforts to dry her clothes via tornado.)

(She liked playing with toads, too.)

Young girls could giggle about boys, because it was presumed that was going to be the most important part of their lives. But what about an ambassador from another village, a diplomat, someone who was supposed to represent a political entity with dignity and neutrality? And not only that, but a woman. Women were supposedly weak and emotional, and even if a kunoichi's ability to function effectively was not impaired by the fact that she found someone attractive as all heck, everyone would assume otherwise. If women were supposed to get marry and have children, then any woman who didn't do that was, obviously, fighting against her basic instincts. Mito was lucky that Konoha was progressive enough to respect a woman delegate. As long as she didn't act womanly.

A woman in as high a position as Mito could not afford to be accused of any sort of sentimental wimpishness. Demonstrating a public interest in some man—not even that, but her exact political opposite, she being ranked one step below the Uzukage and he being ranked one step below the Hokage—would do exactly that. It was unprofessional. It was unacceptable.

Even some eighty years later (give or take) when Mito's own granddaughter was the leader of Konoha, such assumptions about the frailty of women were still in place; and even that was an improvement over conditions in Mito's times.

So, where did that leave Mito? In nearly the same position as Hashirama. Neither considered themselves to be Madara's lovesick little devotees; neither considered themselves childish. Neither of them thought too deeply about why they just knew there were some things they could not say. But they knew it all the same. One fearing suspicion of being a man of dreams, the other fearing suspicion of being too feminine, in both cases unknowingly dreading suspicion of being foolish, wishy-washy, overemotional, unprofessional, and worst of all, unfit to represent their people.

So of course they turned to each other, these fellow sufferers. They had nowhere else to turn.

---

A word on honorifics.

Everybody in Konoha called Senju Hashirama "Hokage-sama." Duh.

And now that Uzumaki Mito was the official diplomat from Uzushiogakure, everybody in Konoha called her "Uzumaki-sama."

Most people in Konoha referred to Uchiha Madara as "Madara-san," because it wasn't like he was important enough to be "sama."

Tobirama got to be "Tobirama-san," which was just fine with him.

There are exceptions to every rule.

Since Hashirama and Mito were on equal footing with each other now, they called each other "dono."

Since Hashirama and Tobirama were brothers, they just called each other by name.

Inside the Senju clan, Hashirama was "Hashirama-sama," as he had been since becoming the clan leader; but outside of the context of the clan, he was still "Hokage-sama."

Inside the Uchiha clan, everybody called Madara "Madara-sama"; but when speaking to people outside their clan, they simply called him "Madara." It was their way of saying "See? He's with us. He's part of my group. Not yours." An outsider did not have the privilege of speaking of Madara without an honorific.

In polite company, the Senju clan still referred to Madara as "Madara-san"; but when among close family and friends, sometimes he would just be "Madara" or "the Uchiha leader," the same thing they had called him when he had been an enemy, undeserving of respect.

In polite company, the Uchiha clan called Hashirama "Hokage-sama"; but within their own complex (and especially around Madara), he was simply "Senju." If anybody was confused which Senju they were talking about, they would specify "that Senju." If they were talking about Tobirama, they would call him "Senju's 'brother.'" If they were talking about any other Senju, they would say "another Senju."

Hashirama and Mito were two of the only three people in Konoha to always refer to Madara as "Madara-sama."

The third person was Madara himself.

---

There were several curses that seemed to haunt the Uchiha clan. Every clan had them—those incessant patterns, those inescapable fates, repeating generation after generation. No matter how many years passed, no matter how many people resisted the curses—there were some that, quite simply, never disappeared.

The Uchiha clan had three.

The first was vengeance. For any reason, for every reason, the clan struck out to avenge itself of its enemies. For those who knew the mythology, they said it was because of the sons of the Sage of the Six Paths; for those who didn't, the enemy was the Senju clan, for everything they did—and when it was convenient they could find a way to justify anybody being aligned with Senju. But the cause of their crusades for revenge didn't really matter, because they would find whatever cause they could. The clan thrived on little acts of vindictiveness and retribution, and all Uchiha walked around with private scorecards in their heads, tallying up all the scores they had to settle, all the slights they had to repay.

The second was fratricide. Brother killing brother, over and over. And father, mother, sister, cousin, friend, lover—both killer and killed. It was inevitable. The clan lived in a homicide-suicide pact with itself, murdering itself to survive.

And the third was the eternal rumor, which returned every generation, that any given Uchiha thought long hair was a total turn-on.

---

Sometimes Hashirama would have lunch in the Hokage Residence's break room.

"Hokage Residence" was a bit of a misnomer, because while it was true that Hashirama did have a bedroom in the building (and while it was true that Hashirama practically lived in his office), the Hokage Residence was used less for residential purposes and more for governmental purposes. This was where village policy was decided, where diplomatic meetings were held, and where an increasing number of people came to hire ninja for missions.

Konoha had several dozen ninja who considered the Hokage Residence their primary workplace. Some dealt with foreign affairs, some domestic; some simply did whatever the Hokage (or Madara) said; some served as guards and bodyguards. And even more ninja came in and out on a daily basis, busy with their own work.

Because of what it was, the Hokage Residence didn't have a kitchen, didn't have a dining room, and didn't have a living room. However, it did have a break room, which served all three purposes admirably.

So sometimes Hashirama ate there. He'd take the small table in the corner of the room, unobtrusive, in the hopes that maybe anyone who came in after him wouldn't notice he was there and thus wouldn't change their behavior just because their Hokage was listening in. This rarely worked, for two reasons.

First, while the average human being might be able to blissfully walk into a room, flop on a chair in the center of things, and completely overlook the quiet man sitting by himself outside of peripheral viewing range, the average ninja is a much more observant creature and learns from a young age that a life can be swiftly and easily lost by walking into a room without first checking all eight corners. (The average human being doesn't even realize that a typical rectangular room has eight corners.)

Second, Hashirama was in that corner often enough that most of the Hokage Residence's core staff had gotten into the habit of turning to bow to that corner the moment they entered the room, whether or not Hashirama was there.

But on occasion, he'd get lucky. Some younger, less-experienced ninja might come in, ninja who had forgotten to check the corners and who hadn't been told that, surprise surprise, you might run into the Hokage in the Hokage Residence. And Hashirama would get to sit and listen for a bit, to hear them talking about normal things—nobody seemed willing to talk about normal things in front of him anymore. Because he was Hokage. On those lucky occasions, he'd quietly sit by himself, eat his lunch, cheerfully eavesdrop, and then on his way out remind the (now quite surprised) ninja to check the corners when they entered a room, for their own safety.

(The other way he sometimes got lucky was when Madara discovered him in the break room and had lunch with him, at his little table in the corner of things. Given, that only happened when Madara had a matter to discuss that couldn't wait until lunch was over, but Madara usually brought his own lunch to these impromptu meetings, so they actually did have lunch together. Hashirama rather enjoyed it and wished they could do it more often, and he didn't mind if Madara brought along his work however often he wanted.)

This, it turned out, happened to be one of those lucky days. (Not one of the days when Madara ate with him, one of the other days.)

He was listening as two girls talked, one of them in a high-collared beige jacket and round sunglasses with a deep flat voice, the other in bright blue-and-yellow knee-length dress with a high jagged voice, and the brighter one was jabbering on and on about this thing she'd heard about Madara—

(And so of course Hashirama paid quite close attention, even if the conversation itself was rather ridiculous.)

So she heard this thing about Madara, like, the Hyuuga clan had approached him about a marriage with a branch house girl? Oh no no, they didn't ask the leader of the Uchiha clan to marry a Hyuuga reject, like, they were asking Madara if he'd let another Uchiha boy marry the Hyuuga? Since, like, you've got to ask Madara for permission on like everything when it's about the Uchiha clan, and he said no. Well, actually, she heard it was something like "never in a million years" or something? But that sounds kinda harsh, like, not even Madara would treat the Hyuuga clan like that? Even if he is like so intense when it comes to marriage and stuff. Like, he's intense about everything? But he's extra intense about marriage. She heard this thing about this girl from this other clan who approached him? And Madara treated her like... sooo intense. And he like totally turned her down. And he even turned down this princess—

"There haven't been any princesses in Konoha," the girl with the sunglasses said.

The girl in the dress cut off abruptly, staring at her. "Well," she said, "well, like—it could have been before Konoha was founded?"

The girl with sunglasses made a non-commital grunt. "But it's true Madara-san has never shown an interest in marriage, isn't it?"

"That's what I've heard," dress girl said. "And he's, like, so good-looking, it's such a shame."

Sunglasses girl nodded in agreement. "He would doubtless produce strong children, as well."

"It's a pity!"

(Good, Hashirama wasn't alone in his opinion that Madara was good-looking. Er, that is, he meant, he had been correct in thinking that most people would consider Madara good-looking. He'd finished his lunch long ago, but he was perfectly content to sit and listen to the girls talk about Madara.)

"Perhaps he's one of those shinobi that don't fall in love," sunglasses girl said. (What was that sudden painful twinge Hashirama felt at the suggestion?) "Some men are more in love with battle than they are with women."

"Oh no way. I've heard Madara-san, like, definitely likes women. Hey, do you know what I heard?"

Sunglasses girl had an almost entirely emotionless voice. She still managed to sound disgusted. "Is this another stupid rumor."

"No, I swear this one's true!" Dress girl leaned closer to sunglasses girl and said, triumphantly, "I heard he likes women with long hair."

There was a long, long, frigid silence. "Oh, come on."

"No, that's like totally true!"

"What are we, twelve-year-olds?"

"Hey, it's just what I heard, okay?"

And that was when Hashirama told himself to stop listening. This was ridiculous. It was foolish, childish gossip, and he didn't need to hear this, and he was probably embarrassing both himself and Madara by listening. He wasn't going to indulge in this anymore.

Honestly. Madara liked long hair? Of all the silly gossip in the world. Who cared? And it probably wasn't even true.

Really, you had to be a fool to worry about things like that.

---

Hashirama liked his hair. Tobirama kept telling him that someday somebody was going to grab him by it and use it against him in battle, but in Hashirama's opinion, a ninja had to be pretty incompetent if he couldn't think of a better combat technique than hair-pulling, and he wasn't worried about incompetent ninja, and besides, Hashirama was primarily a long-distance fighter, it would take quite a bit for a ninja to be able to get him, and in any case, if it ever did happen he could just chop his hair off.

Tobirama said that Hashirama would be more likely to try to chop his attacker's hand off than chop his own hair, and Hashirama told Tobirama to stop being ridiculous, but he had a point.

Hashirama liked his hair.

However, Tobirama was worried enough about somebody using it against him that Hashirama agreed, just to keep his brother off his back, that he wouldn't let it grow any longer than it already was. At Tobirama's insistence, that meant getting about an inch off every other month.

The next month around, he skipped it.

Well, he was just busy. Besides, it wasn't like he'd been in any big battles lately, or anticipated being in one in the near future. And Tobirama didn't get to decide what Hashirama did with himself, and that included his hair. And, really, why do this every other month? It was just going to grow back, after not getting much longer anyway. He'd cut it in another couple of months.

In another couple of months, he didn't cut it.

It was just because it took too much effort and really wasn't worth it.

Really.

There really weren't any other reasons.

Really.

After all, why did he care what Madara thought about his hair?

---

This was how Hashirama knew any rumors about Madara's tastes were nothing more than rumors: Madara never demonstrated having any tastes.

Madara was the most stoic man Hashirama had ever met.

Well, that was how Hashirama thought of him, at least. Other people would refer to him as cold, or arrogant, or rude, or hostile, or the only worse thing that could happen to a village than a tailed beast attack. (That last one was Tobirama's.) But how well did any of them know Madara?

Hashirama had actually fought him. Battled him, countless times. And he knew: the only way one ninja could truly understand another ninja was through battle. Hashirama had been told, and he firmly believed, that two sufficiently powerful ninja, through combat, could each actually understand what was in his enemy's heart. And in all their countless battles, there was one supremely important thing that Hashirama had figured out about Madara.

The thing he'd figured out about Madara was that he couldn't figure out a thing about Madara.

He had sealed his heart away so well that Hashirama could not, in the very slightest, tell what he'd hidden in it.

Maybe that was part of Hashirama's... obsession, his fascination with Madara. The fact that he was so unknown.

(Or perhaps the obsession had come first, and Hashirama refused to believe that what he saw in Madara's heart was real, because it wasn't the same as the identity for Madara that he had invented in his mind. Or perhaps Hashirama was the one who had blocked off his heart, to prevent Madara from seeing inside, and it kept Hashirama from seeing out as well—how can you look through your neighbor's windows if you've got the curtains drawn over your own?)

So it was obvious enough that Madara was... secretive. Self-contained. That he did not share his heart with anyone. But how did that make him hostile, or arrogant? It just made him a loner. It made him the kind of man who would live out his entire life as the leader of his clan, but not as a part of it. It made him the kind of man whom everyone looked up to, but never stood alongside. The kind of man who considered his followers to be his family, but had no urge to actually find a wife and have a family of his own. (Hashirama was blissfully unaware of the fact that, in his attempt to turn Madara into someone understandable and sympathetic, he was taking many traits that described himself and plugging them on Madara.) It made him the kind of man so wrapped up in his duties that he was left with no urge to think of pleasure. Didn't it?

Well. As it turned out? Apparently not.

Hashirama had thought Madara was completely stoic on all matters. Including matters of romance. After all, he'd never shown the slightest interest in any of the women that came and went through the Hokage Residence on a daily basis. Kunoichi, civilians, diplomats... Unlike nearly every other single male their age, Madara paid women no more attention than men, only giving their bodies the quick scan he gave everyone to check for weapons. His eyes never lingered, he didn't pay special attention to certain parts of their anatomy... Of course, maybe he didn't have to, perhaps he saw all he needed to see with his Sharingan.

Be that as it may, Hashirama had remained firmly convinced that Madara just wasn't interested. He never showed any interest. (And some stupid stupid deluded part of his mind kept going he shows more interest in me than he does in anyone else, maybe he, maybe he's, maybe I'm not the only one who—) He'd thought Madara just didn't care about women. (And maybe he cared about—)

As it turned out, he just had very particular tastes.

Hashirama discovered this while taking a rather unscheduled walk with Madara. He'd been coming back from lunch (courtesy of the Akimichi clan) when Madara had swooped upon him from out of nowhere, a flurry of feathers and papers accompanying him, and began marching alongside him back toward the Hokage Residence. It took Hashirama a baffled moment to work out that a hawk had arrived at the Hokage Residence with an important message, and Madara had absconded with both message and hawk to inform Hashirama.

But not before he pointed out that it was a good thing he had been in the Hokage's office to receive the news when it arrived; he didn't actually say "unlike you, Hokage-sama," but it was there in his eyes. Hashirama praised him duly for being so responsive, thanked him for taking care of the Hokage duties when Hashirama wasn't there, tried to ignore the accusation in Madara's eyes, and asked what the news was.

The news was that the Four-Tailed Monkey had been spotted crossing the border from the Land of Straw into the Land of Fire, northwest by west by north of Konoha (Hashirama was going to have to ask Madara for a definition of that later), and if Hashirama was going to test out that trick the Uzumaki clan had helped him develop that he thought could seal tailed beasts in little jars, he'd better do it within the next few days before the Yonbi reached Konoha. (Hashirama asked Madara how he knew about this top-secret newly-developed forbidden sealing jutsu. Madara shrugged as if he couldn't be bothered to recall where he'd picked up such trifling gossip.)

"And where is this information coming from?" Hashirama asked, looking at the note that contained the actual message. No signature.

"An Uchiha outpost in the area."

"You have Uchiha outposts outside of Konoha?"

"Of course. What if something happens to Konoha?" His tone suggested that he assumed something would. "Besides, they've turned out to be useful, haven't they?"

Well, so it seemed. "How do you know it's from that outpost, though?"

Madara gave Hashirama almost a pitying look. "Because this is my hawk, Hokage-sama."

"Oh." Hashirama gave the hawk a closer look. It was perched quite comfortably on Madara's arm. "I didn't know you kept hawks." Part of him was horrified at the fact that he hadn't known, and part was triumphant at the fact that he now did.

"It's a hobby," Madara said, as though that were all he had to say on the subject. "So, about the Yonbi?"

"I think the sealing technique is ready to try out," Hashirama said, still wondering about Madara and the hawks. "But I hadn't been planning on using it without an Uzumaki nearby to help supervise."

"What about Mito-san?" Madara asked.

Hashirama hesitated. "I'm not sure if she'd be up to the task," he said. "I don't think she knows much about how the appropriate seals for this technique work. She's learned the general theory, but..."

(This little comment said more about Hashirama's worldliness than it did about Mito's knowledge. Hashirama lived his entire life with the same mistaken impression as pretty much everyone in the Senju clan—not to mention most of the rest of the world. This impression being that women were not naturally competent at manly things. Now, Hashirama was more enlightened than most men, which in this case meant he believed that it was entirely possible for some women to become just as good as men at many different things. He also happily acknowledged talented women, but talented women always seemed to surprise him. Even when he met one, he wouldn't quite believe it until he saw her in action, and after that assumed that she could only be talented in one way. Mito, for example, was a talented diplomat, but for that reason he didn't expect her to also be talented with seals. If she could talk knowledgeably on the subject, it meant she'd learned the general theory. He wouldn't know that she was talented in using seals as well until he actually witnessed her doing so. And then he'd be pleasantly surprised all over again. Never mind that whenever he met a man that was talented in one area, he'd assume he was talented in multiple areas. All of this meant that he never really expected very much out the women in his life, but at least they were always leaving him pleasantly surprised.)

"Ask Mito-san anyway," Madara said. (Like he was giving the Hokage orders.) "At this rate, the Yonbi's going to get to Konoha long before anyone from Uzushiogakure could arrive. Assuming Mito-san isn't up to the task, do you plan on trying the sealing technique anyway?"

(It was then that a woman started approaching them from the opposite direction. Hashirama never would have noticed her on a normal day; he hadn't thought Madara would have, either.)

"I suppose we don't have choice, do we?"

"Well, if you aren't ready, the only other option is to try to fight it off before it reaches Konoha," Madara said. (As the woman got closer, Madara, who had been very slightly turned his gaze to follow her, started slowly rotating his Sharingan.) "To that end, my clan could... summon..." (As she drew level and passed them, Madara paused, turned, slowed for a second, glanced at her from behind; and a moment later faced forward and resumed his pace.) "Could summon reinforcements, but we would have to start within the next day or so if we're to intercept the Yonbi."

Meanwhile, Hashirama had completely lost track of the topic at hand. Had Madara actually just...? No, he wasn't the kind of guy to... Plus, it had been so subtle, but... What else could he have been...?

"Do you know her?"

Madara gave him a blank look. "'Her'?" (He was wondering whether Hashirama was referring to the Yonbi or the reinforcements, and wondering why he assumed either would be female.) And then comprehension. He smiled, so slightly that only someone who lived to see Madara smile would notice it (Hashirama noticed it), and then looked forward again. "Yes," he said. "Why do you ask, Hokage-sama?"

Oh. What did he say? He could hardly say that he thought Madara had been eyeing her and he wanted him to confirm or deny. "I just, uh, noticed her go by—"

"You were watching her?"

Why was Madara asking the question Hashirama wanted to ask?! (A stupid deluded voice went maybe he's jealous—no, shut up, Madara wasn't jealous—wait, did that mean Hashirama was jealous? Wait, what?) "I wasn't—well, I mean, I saw her—"

"What do you think?"

Hashirama took so long to answer that Madara gave him an inquisitive glance, as if to say well...? (And all the time his smile slowly grew.) "Uh," he said eloquently. "She... looks nice. Doesn't she?" That was non-committal enough.

(Wait wait WAIT, didn't Madara already think that Hashirama was a man of dreams?! Oh great, THIS wouldn't do anything to lessen his suspicions, would it! Oh hell oh hell—)

"I see," Madara said. And then his smile grew into a wicked smirk. "She's my half-niece."

Hashirama's thoughts, in order of appearance:

Oh hell, Madara thinks I was eyeballing his half-niece?

Wait. Madara was eyeing his own half-niece?

... What the hell is a half-niece?!

(How long was her hair?)

"She's off-limits," Madara informed him, almost gleefully. But then, his smile faltered, and he muttered, "To both of us."

There were all sorts of things wrong with that statement.

By the time they reached the Hokage Residence, Hashirama had agreed to attempt the sealing technique on the Four-Tailed Monkey, had said he would ask Mito about possibly helping out with the seals, had ordered Madara to contact those reinforcements he'd mentioned but keep them in reserve, and had no recollection of saying any of the things Madara later assured him he had, in fact, said.

---

The Uchiha clan had many rules, regulations, and legal documents.

None of which they shared with outsiders.

Hashirama managed to find a way.

"Madara-sama's too paranoid anyway," Uchiha Hiya grumbled, pulling a large scroll out from a passage hidden by a tatami mat. "It's like he thinks somebody's planning on massacring the clan or something."

Hashirama said he was sure Madara thought nothing of the sort. Hiya just sighed.

The first thing Hashirama looked at was a genealogy chart of the entire Uchiha clan—which was so immense it took up half the room when unfolded, and looked like a multicolored connect-the-dots mixed with a maze mixed with a spider web. Hiya informed him (with no small amount of clan pride) that it was practically impossible to read it without the Sharingan. Hashirama tried anyway. After several futile minutes (Hashirama couldn't even find Madara's name), Hiya sighed, relented, and informed him that they had special glasses with colored lenses that could be used to sort out the lines. The glasses were reserved for children and elders who couldn't use the Sharingan, and also they looked really stupid.

They did look really stupid. Hashirama quietly ignored the fact that Hiya snickered and activated his Sharingan to memorize the sight the moment Hashirama put on his glasses, and took another look at the chart.

There were a half dozen different pairs of glasses, each with different lens colors to highlight different aspects of the chart (who the hell had designed this thing?), and he went through four pairs before he managed to locate Madara. Which was actually kind of stupid, since the names and birthdates themselves were perfectly easy to see; it was just the lines between them that made no sense.

He was shocked and a little embarrassed to discover Madara was seven years younger than him. (Though why should he be embarrassed? It wasn't as though he'd had any inappropriate thoughts about Madara, right?)

He had to switch back to one of the earlier pairs in order to find the lines stringing out from Madara's name. Two snaking up to Madara's parents, another pair of lines snaking from them to another man, younger than Madara, and marked as "deceased": Izuna. So that was his brother's name. (Between Izuna and Madara, there was a tangle of lines; an arrow from Izuna to Madara, an X over Izuna, an O over Madara, a dotted line from Izuna to someone else, a solid line from Madara to that same person with an X in the middle of it and another dotted line branching out of the X and pointing at the first arrow between Madara and Izuna...) And then a third line from Madara's father, running parallel to a line from another woman, leading to a woman about sixteen years older than Madara: a half-sister, apparently. And a line snaking from her, running parallel to a line from another man, to a woman who was two years younger than Madara. So that's what a half-niece was. Hashirama wondered what she looked like.

Besides the genealogy charts, Hashirama looked into the Uchiha marriage laws; that was the scroll Hiya had pulled up for him out of some hidden chamber. For such a big scroll, it had very tiny print. It took quite a while for Hashirama to track down the rules on who could marry whom and why. (In the meantime, however, he learned that in the Uchiha clan, the official mourning period for a loved one was five hundred days, all members of the clan had to have a clan sigil at least the width of their palm displayed on their person above waist height at all times, and it was illegal to be seen outdoors with a folding fan or a pinwheel on Tuesdays, the fourth of the month, or any time in April.)

The Uchiha marriage rules resembled mathematics more than anything else, percentages based on ancestors and blood and how far you had to go back until all your ancestors were the same, and if the percentage was over 46% (where had that number come from?) you couldn't marry. (There was no answer to the question of how marriages outside the clan worked; Hashirama was beginning to suspect the answer was "they don't.")

Siblings with the same parents were 100% related, since each got 50% of their blood from their father and 50% from their mother; half-siblings were at least 50% related, and a parent and child were at least 50% related. Aunts/uncles and nieces/nephews were 40% related, and no matter how many times Hashirama did the math in his head he couldn't figure out where they'd gotten that statistic, from the other math he thought it'd be 50% related. And did that mean nieces and nephews could marry their uncles and aunts?

And to make everything more worrisome, any Uchiha whose exact relation to another Uchiha was unknown would be given the same percentage as a cousin—which was 10%, inexplicably. But at least that was accompanied by a ban on marriage unless they were reasonably certain the percentages would be low enough. Then again, Hashirama was beginning to wonder what "reasonably certain" meant to an Uchiha.

He finally gave up, asked Hiya how closely related a person would be to a half-niece (Hashirama thought it should be 20%, if half-siblings were half as related as full siblings, and nieces/nephews were 40%), and was informed it was 15%, assuming no other common ancestry.

Hashirama was beginning to get the feeling that the Uchiha clan was fudging with their numbers to make it easier to marry their relatives.

He asked if that meant, then, that Madara and his half-niece were 15% related? Hiya seemed surprised by the question, but didn't show it. He consulted the chart, Sharingan spinning, and informed Hashirama that, no, they weren't 15% related. They were 54% related.

Whatever the expression was that crossed Hashirama's face, Hiya found it very amusing.

"It's not that strange," Hiya said. "Madara-sama and Izuna-san were 221% related."

"How is that...?"

Hiya slowly shook his head. Hashirama decided he didn't want to know.

Hashirama was beginning to figure out why the Uchiha clan had to keep fudging with their numbers. Because they were all relatives.

"Why do you have such elaborate rules?" he asked, as Hiya was putting away the scroll and genealogy chart.

"To prevent incest."

It was only with great difficulty that Hashirama managed to prevent himself from laughing in disbelief.

Hiya gave him a withering look. (With his Sharingan on, it was a look that made it very clear he was related to Madara; how closely, Hashirama wondered?) "Perhaps it doesn't make sense to someone from a clan where 'family' members aren't even related," he said, "but it's kept the Uchiha clan healthy and powerful for generations. In over a hundred years, less than five Uchiha have made it to adulthood without developing the Sharingan. In that same time, how many Senju have had your kekkei genkai, Hokage-sama?"

Less than five.

Be that as it may, Hashirama still couldn't quite look at the Uchiha clan in the same way after that.

Hiya reminded him multiple times that he'd never seen this stuff, he didn't have this information, he didn't know a thing about the scrolls or the chart or the hidden chamber, much less about anything he'd learned from them, and if someone did find out that Hashirama had seen this stuff, then for the Sage's sake he didn't hear it from Hiya. Hashirama swore that he would take these secrets to his grave. (And he did. The existence of any of the places or items Hashirama had seen was kept completely concealed from the rest of the village, until Itachi informed Danzou about them a few weeks before he massacred the Uchiha clan.)

Hashirama tried to convince himself that Hiya was just too paranoid about getting caught.

He tried to convince himself that he hadn't just knowingly abused his authority, broken into the Uchiha complex, and stolen their clan secrets. All to find out more about a woman and some regulations he didn't even care about, just because Madara had barely mentioned them in passing.

"Stalking" was not, and is still not, a concept familiar in the Land of Fire.

But even though he didn't know what he was doing, Hashirama still had the decency to feel ashamed of himself.

---

It was during that trip that Hashirama finally heard the story about Madara's deceased brother Izuna. He had asked Hiya why he disapproved so much of his clan leader. Hiya had told him.

There was a reason for the odd tangle between Madara and Izuna on the genealogy chart. And for their very high relationship percentage.

They had only been 121% related.

Until Madara had taken Izuna's eyes.

Although it wasn't referred to as such, that was the first time Hashirama had ever heard of the Uchiha curse of fratricide.

That. That was the brother Madara loved so much? That was the brother for whom he had mourned so long? He had stolen his eyes? He had doomed him to death?

The next time he met with Mito, some formal meal, and she asked him quietly, eyes shining, what was the latest news, what could he tell her about Madara...?

He told her.

She stared at Hashirama, mouth open, horrified. "That's... that..." She slowly leaned back, slowly squinted her eyes, slowly frowned in concentration, like she was struggling to find an answer that just wasn't there. "That poor man, right...?"

"Yeah." Hashirama nodded in agreement.

"To have to do something like that to his own little brother..."

Hashirama nodded again.

No, of course they weren't horrified at what Madara had done. Yes, of course they pitied him more than Izuna. Everything Madara did was justified, he had his reasons, they understood, they understood.

Poor thing.

It took Hashirama a while to figure out what all this meant.

Madara's eyes, his beautiful, beautiful eyes?

They weren't his eyes. They were Izuna's, Izuna's eyes.

And yet they were so much a part of him...

They held his fire, they held his soul. He spoke with them, he fought with them. Hashirama could see Madara's entire life in his eyes.

Maybe they had not been his originally—but they were now. That was how Hashirama saw it, and how he would always see it.

Nothing would ever change the way he saw Madara.

---

The Uchiha clan baffled Hashirama. They had elaborate laws that allowed them to get away with marrying exclusively within their own clan, for the purposes of "preventing incest." Uchiha clan rituals involved stealing one's sibling's eyes. And Madara may or may not have had a thing for long hair.

So the clan baffled him.

That was fine; apparently, he baffled them right back.

He found this out when Uchiha Byakko came to him with a message from Madara, who was doing something out in the western realms of the Land of Fire, some mission which he didn't tell Hashirama a thing about but which Hashirama was happy to assume was very important. Madara's message had gone straight to the Uchiha clan (perhaps one of his hawks had carried it), and so Byakko had taken it to the Hokage Residence.

Byakko often served as the messenger from the Uchiha clan to the Hokage Residence (when Madara didn't operate in that capacity), and sometimes from the Hokage residence to the Hyuuga clan (because their elders respected him as a fellow elder and sometimes-ally-sometimes-enemy from previous decades). If the Hyuuga clan had asked Madara if one of their members could marry an Uchiha, they had probably sent the message through Byakko. Hashirama wondered if he should ask whether or not the rumor was true, but figured it probably wouldn't be appropriate and would just make him look silly if it wasn't (and it probably wasn't).

He shouldn't have worried, because in terms of silly questions about silly rumors, Byakko's next one easily beat out anything Hashirama was wondering about. (Except for the "long hair" rumor, that one took the cake.)

"If you'll excuse me, Hokage-sama," Byakko said after delivering Madara's message, "I have a question that I've been puzzling over a while, and I was wondering if you might not be willing to answer it...?"

As eager as he was to read whatever it was that Madara could have possibly sent him, he set aside the rolled paper and gave Byakko his full attention. "I'll do my best to answer, Byakko-san."

"Is it true that you and Tobirama-san aren't related?"

Hashirama stared at Byakko. What in the world. "Why do you say that?"

"That's just what it looks like, Hokage-sama," Byakko said quickly. "I would never have brought it up except... you don't look much alike. It's grown into something of a debate, in my clan—whether or not the Senju clan is an actual family, or more of a... loose coalition of unrelated ninja, more or less."

"Of course we're a family," Hashirama said, then remembered what that probably meant in Uchiha terms and quickly amended, "I mean, when we marry, someone will marry in from outside the clan, so the spouse joins Senju, but... we're still related."

Byakko nodded slowly, as if the concept of being related to anyone in a clan that didn't exclusively marry with itself baffled him.

Hashirama decided to make it easier for him. "Tobirama and I are fully related, same mother and father," he said, and before he thought it out, added, "One hundred percent." That was a concept an Uchiha would understand. That was also a concept that Hashirama shouldn't have known about, he remembered after the fact. Maybe Byakko would think he'd just been using an idiom and hadn't been explicitly referring to the Uchiha clan rules.

"I see..." Byakko still looked puzzled. "You don't look like you're related. If you'll forgive my saying so."

Well, they weren't 221% related, but Hashirama thought they looked related enough. Even if they had completely different hair and eye colors. And skin colors. And facial structures... "Sometimes these things happen," he said, shrugging.

The look Byakko gave him quite clearly said no, they don't. But he bowed graciously and said, "Thank you for your time, Hokage-sama."

"Not at all."

And Byakko hurried off to do whatever it was he was supposed to do (report this news to the Uchiha clan, maybe), and Hashirama suddenly wondered—did that mean Madara thought Hashirama and Tobirama weren't related? That stung.

But... Oh well.

It wasn't the worst thing Madara had ever thought about him.

Somehow, Hashirama didn't think he'd convinced Byakko that he and Tobirama were really related. But Hiya hadn't convinced Hashirama that the Uchiha clan's marriage rules were in place to prevent incest, so fair was fair.

---

Year Four

The Year Konoha's Honeymoon Period Ended

---

Somewhere in all of that, they did manage to capture the Four-Tailed Monkey.

It turned out that Mito did, in fact, know how to do all of the necessary work to assist in the sealing. She was actually one of the most talented seal-users in the Uzumaki clan, and had helped develop the seal they planned on using on the Yonbi. She was very helpful. Hashirama was pleasantly surprised.

During the course of the mission, Tobirama heard somebody mention a "jumping monkey," got all confused and thought that was one of the Four-Tailed Monkey's nicknames, discovered it was actually some guy's family name (since that was what "Sarutobi" meant), and—against Hashirama's advice—made a point of tracking down Sarutobi Sasuke for the express purpose of insulting his name. In return, Sasuke demanded to know why "Senju" was called what it was and asked Tobirama where he was hiding his other 998 hands. Tobirama said he kept them in little jars in his kitchen cabinet, behind the sake. Sasuke said that was the same place he kept his jumping monkeys. Tobirama and Sasuke were best friends by the time they made it back to Konoha and Hashirama would never again succeed in sending one on a mission without the other finding some way to tag along.

There were celebrations in Konoha over the capture of the Yonbi. They went on for several days.

(Hashirama attended as few as he had to, skipped as many as he could, and drank nothing at any of them. Most of the time, while the rest of the village was celebrating, he was back in the Hokage Residence hard at work. Most of the time, Madara was there with him. It was nice.)

Mito was sent back to Uzushio with a letter, informing the village of Konoha's success, praising their seal, and asking if they might send somebody to help reinforce it, just to double-check Mito's work. They sent back a message saying that they were currently busy dealing with local conflicts (something something angry Kaguya in boats), but as soon as they could spare someone they would send someone to Konohagakure.

Madara had promised that the Uchiha clan could provide "reinforcements" for the battle against the Yonbi, but they were never needed, so Hashirama never met them. So he never had to find out that the Uchiha clan's idea of a "reinforcement" looked like something out of one of Hashirama's nightmares and had more than twice as many tails as the Yonbi.

That was all sometime in the past year.

Extremely ridiculously late, the daimyou of the Land of Fire finally sent a letter of congratulations to Konohagakure no Sato in general and to Shodai Hokage Senju Hashirama-dono in particular. (Shodai Hokage? Founding Fire Shadow? That was the first time Hashirama had been referred to as such, although he appreciated the suggestion that Konoha would last long enough for more people to eventually wear the title Hokage. Well, unless Madara actually did change the title.)

The daimyou went on to enthuse about how much Konohagakure no Sato was doing for this fine nation, and that he had recently learned from several other daimyou that they were coming to similar arrangements with many of the clans in their nations, forming similar "hidden villages," and he was pleased that his own nation was on the cutting-edge. The fact that Konohagakure no Sato had the power not only to divert the path of a tailed beast, but also to neutralize its threat forever, proved what a wonderful force it was, and the daimyou hoped that it would continue to prove its worth far into the future.

But for that reason, the daimyou felt that they needed to start planning now to ensure that the village would still exist in the future. After all, the life of any political leader was a very uncertain one, threatened as it was by rivals and assassins—and the same could be said for any shinobi. Especially a shinobi who made it his personal business to confront tailed beasts head-on.

In short, he wanted Hashirama to name a successor. A Nidaime Hokage.

Already?

(Over Hashirama's shoulder, Madara was reading along—probably reading much faster, too—and when Hashirama reached that point, he instinctively glanced up at Madara. Neither of them said a thing, neither of their expressions changed, but the look in Madara's eyes was pleased.)

If obtaining a successor meant finding Hashirama a suitable wife to provide one, the daimyou would be more than willing to arrange a marriage that would be satisfactory to him and also be politically beneficial to the Land of Fire.

Hashirama quickly wrote him back to thank him for his praise and his offer, but it had been his plan to select his successor the ninja way: not by fathering one, but by choosing a ninja whom he knew and who had demonstrated the strength and competence necessary for the position.

"'The ninja way'?" Madara repeated. "Most ninja clans choose their successors from among the previous clan leader's descendants."

"Well, only the strong and competent descendants, right?"

Madara grinned. Hashirama's day was officially a success.

"Actually," Hashirama said, "I'm mainly trying to keep him off my back. If I just tell him I want to choose a successor my own way, I'd run the risk of offending him, or making him think that I'm opposed to the traditional daimyou way of naming successors." Which was choosing from among their children.

"Are you opposed?"

Hashirama paused. "Well, I don't want him to think I am."

Madara chuckled. Hashirama's week was officially a success.

"So, if you tell him it's a ninja tradition, he can't conclude that you're snubbing his help or his practices?" Madara said. "Very nice, Hokage-sama. You might be a politician after all."

Madara didn't ask whom Hashirama was planning on naming as his successor. Hashirama didn't bring it up. After all, Hashirama had just gotten the orders to find a successor, it was far too early for him to have any ideas.

(After all, it would be indecorous on Madara's part to seem overly eager to have his suspicions confirmed, and it would be indecorous on Hashirama's part to seem overly certain at the start of what would surely be a protracted selection process. But they didn't need to say anything.)

(In fact, it would take Hashirama a year to choose a successor. Had events proceeded as they had been proceeding since before Konoha had even existed, the decision would have been easy and the successor would have been named with no conflicts at all, and nobody would have been surprised at the choice. It was practically a given that Hashirama was going to name Madara as his successor. Even the people who didn't like him knew that he was the obvious choice for the position.)

(But then things changed.)

---

After that letter arrived, for the next few days, Madara was nicer to Hashirama than he had ever been before. It was almost as though he actually liked him. Hashirama was almost dizzy with happiness.

Of course it was because of that letter from the daimyou. But it wasn't because Madara was acting the sycophant in hopes of being chosen as the Nidaime Hokage. (Madara was incapable of sycophancy.) It was just his way of saying "thank you" ahead of time for the leadership position he knew he was going to receive. Being selected to lead a village like this was quite a mark of honor, trust, and respect.

It was also during this time that Madara admitted out loud, for the very first time, that he respected Senju Hashirama.

In fact, he respected him more than he did any other shinobi in the world.

Madara actually said that. Ungrudgingly, unembarrassed, unprompted. Of course, he hadn't said it to Hashirama. Or to any other Senju. And he didn't admit it in front of any Uchiha, either. But he did say it to someone.

And Kagayaki Koori had overheard him. (Koori was one of those men who was always there but rarely noticed, an ideal follower but little else, and the only reason he couldn't be called a sycophant was because he wasn't enthusiastic enough. He had also designed the leaf symbol that now represented Konoha but nobody seemed to remember that.) Being the loyal assistant-bordering-on-secretary that he was, he reported what Madara had said back to Hashirama.

It was a good thing that Koori was such a loyal assistant, because he would never mention to anybody the overjoyed, dazed grin that stretched across Hashirama's face as his brain shut down from sheer ecstasy.

The next time Hashirama passed Madara in the street, Madara gave him a thin (smug) smile. Hashirama didn't even say anything, and Madara smiled.

Hashirama loved that smile.

---

While Mito was back in Uzushiogakure, Hashirama received an inquiry from the Uzumaki clan, delivered by the ninja who'd been sent to help fortify the Yonbi's seals, written in Mito's hand, asking about the Uchiha clan's practices of arranged marriage—for purposes of political alliance, of course. Hashirama's heart sank as he read the letter (although he could not say why) and he felt what might have been resentment toward Mito (although he couldn't explain that one, either); but he dutifully passed the letter on to Madara.

Thinking, all the while: she just wants the political prestige, she wants the honor of being able to say she's married to the Nidaime Hokage. She doesn't actually care about Madara, she doesn't care

(After all, a woman as high-ranked as Mito could not afford to be suspected of marrying for any reason other than the political, for fear of being seen as weak, as emotional, as feminine. So of course she only wanted to marry for purposes of political alliance. She couldn't allow herself to be accused of marrying for any other reason.)

A few days later, Madara presented a letter to Hashirama, to send to the Uzumaki clan. It was barely on the polite side of a written sneer. The Uchiha clan did not do marriages outside the Uchiha clan, arranged or otherwise, for whatever reason, under any circumstances, forever and ever, the end, period. Hashirama felt relieved (although he could not have said why).

(Of course, both of these letters were presented to him sealed, with requests to pass them on that way. He was Hokage, he had a right to check the contents of letters that came across his desk, right? He only ever seemed to exercise that right when Madara's name was somewhere on the outside of the letter, whether it was "to" or "from," but...)

The Uzumaki clan did not reply for a month. And Mito didn't come back during that time.

The next time they sent a letter, it was from the clan leader and Uzukage; he was offering Mito in marriage to the Hokage Senju Hashirama, to formalize the alliance between Konoha and Uzushio. Hashirama was baffled.

But why was he...? Hadn't he thought that they got along well? That they thought the same, felt the same, had similar interests?

So why was he so surprised?

(Perhaps it was because they only really had one interest in common, and it wasn't so much one they shared as one that was wedged between them. Perhaps it was because on some level Hashirama knew who Mito was really interested in marrying and it wasn't Hashirama, and on that same level Hashirama knew it was the same person he was interested in.)

He couldn't think of a reason why not to. They got along. They came from allied clans. They had compatible philosophies. He couldn't think of a reason not to say yes.

Why was he trying to think of a reason not to say yes?

He did not make the same mental accusations of her now, never thought that she wanted the honor of being able to say she was married to the Shodai Hokage. He never stopped to think about whether or not she cared about him. Because in a political marriage, like this, love didn't matter, and you knew you were marrying for the honor of it. He knew that for a fact, and he did not begrudge her for it. It was intelligent politics. He never stopped to wonder why that same knowledge had bothered him so much when she'd been inquiring after Madara, but not when she was proposing marriage to Hashirama himself.

He sent a letter to the Uzumaki clan accepting the offer and agreeing to the engagement. He tried to convince himself that he wasn't, for some reason, disappointed. It was a good match, wasn't it?

He convinced himself that the downhearted feeling he'd had when reading Mito's letter to the Uchiha clan had been disappointment over losing an opportunity for a favorable Senju/Uzumaki marriage. He convinced himself that he had not felt resentment for Mito. He convinced himself that he was pleased.

It was a favorable match, for both their clans and both their villages.

And they had so much in common.

---

"I've heard that your daimyou is really pressuring you about the selection process for your successor, Hokage-dono?" Mito said.

He tried not to sigh. "You had to remind me." But he didn't really mean it. The decision had already been made, there was never any question.

She smiled. "I'm sure you'll choose the best man for the job."

"I hope so." He only said that to be humble, so as not to sound like he was boasting about his own wisdom as Hokage. However, he would have no problem with boasting about his successor's abilities.

They were having lunch—and doing much more talking than eating, but there were plates of food in front of them, so technically they were having lunch. This was the first time Hashirama and Mito had seen each other since getting engaged via mail.

This was not a social lunch. Hashirama was still "Hokage-dono," Mito was still "Uzumaki-dono." They may as well have not been engaged, for all they acted the part. This was a diplomatic lunch, between the leader of one village and the representative of another. Not a lunch between a future husband and wife.

Their engagement did nothing to change their attitudes toward each other, nor the way they spoke to each other.

Nor what they spoke about.

"I can barely think of any candidates for the role of Nidaime Hokage," Hashirama said. "Not that Konoha doesn't have many good ninja, but actually being Hokage is... nothing like normal ninja duties."

Mito shrugged. "Well, how many candidates do you need, right?" she asked. "All that's really necessary is one good man?"

"I suppose so." Hashirama smiled sheepishly. "Well, to be honest—I can only think of one man at all."

"Oh, really?" Mito smiled. "I hope he's a good one."

There was a pause, for a moment—they were still having lunch, after all, they did need to eat. But once they'd had a moment, Mito added, "I'm sure he will be."

Of course she was sure. She knew exactly who Hashirama was talking about.

The same person they always talked about.

Hashirama supposed he could have just outright told Mito. It wouldn't have hurt anything. He trusted that whatever he said to Mito would go no farther than her, and she presumably trusted him the same way. They got along very well, really. They had pleasant enough conversations, they thought in similar ways... She was a perfectly charming woman.

He supposed it was a good thing that they were getting married, then, wasn't it? (For a moment, he thought wait, we're getting married? Oh, right.) Well, they did get along well enough. Which was important for a marriage. Plus, they were both very high ranked in very highly regarded clans, and what's more, they were each the symbols of their respective villages—a marriage between them would serve to solidify the alliance between their two clans, their villages, and their nations. That was more something the Land of Fire's daimyou would be pleased about. And he certainly was pleased. (He was had kept pressing Hashirama to find a suitable marriage partner, even when he'd said he didn't plan on producing an heir that way. This quite neatly got him off Hashirama's back. Now the daimyou was just bothering him about that successor.) And they were about the same age, and they were both powerful ninja and they had about the same philosophy: that peace and cooperation were more important than anything else, that everything had to be done to protect future generations, and that only love—not strength—could save the world from war. That was enough for Hashirama.

He didn't ask himself if he loved her, because in a political marriage like this, love was not important. Besides, if he had asked, the answer would have been "no," and that would have messed everything up.

"How has he been doing lately, anyway?" Mito asked. She kept her eyes down as she asked. If any pain remained in them, some shadow of disappointment from Madara's rejection—she didn't show it.

"He's been in a very good mood lately," Hashirama said. He wondered if Mito would care to hear that Madara had said he respected Hashirama, and then decided she probably wouldn't. "He hasn't given a reason why, but... Madara-sama's been smiling a lot more lately."

"Has he?" Mito smiled, a bit wistfully. "I'm glad. He's had such a hard life..." She glanced up at Hashirama, and something devious shined in her eyes. Her voice was gently sarcastic. "I wonder what's got Madara-sama so happy, right?"

Hashirama laughed. "Good question." It was only just barely an evasion of the question and not a very good one at that.

He never realized that the conversation had jumped straight from his unnamed Nidaime Hokage candidate to "How has he been doing, anyway?" to Madara. They both understood perfectly.

They were just a lot alike.

---

Proof of what a good mood Madara was in: he actually suggested that Hashirama take a day off. He'd take over full duties as Hokage.

This wasn't because Madara was so cheerful that he felt like being charitable. He enjoyed being in control, and the only reason he didn't try for it more often was because it would look bad if he were perceived as trying too often to wrest control of Konoha away from Hashirama. He was just so cheerful that he didn't care whether or not people got suspicious of his motives.

But Hashirama cared about what people thought about Madara. So he agreed, on the condition that Madara would get a day off later, because Hashirama didn't want to overwork him. (And he would act like the idea to take a day off had been his, and that he had asked Madara to fill in for him. If anyone would be spoken ill of, it would be Hashirama, and he was fine with that. So was Madara.)

That didn't mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that Hashirama stopped working. He voluntarily took a mountain of paperwork home with him, most of it the daily pile of inner-village reports to go through, but a fair portion consisting of letters from other nations and villages that still had something to say about Konoha's capture of the Yonbi (letters had been coming in for weeks and weeks), and only he could reply to those letters. Madara was more than happy to let him handle the paperwork.

So they parted on happy terms: Madara, gleeful at the prospect of running Konoha alone for the day (and at the prospect of doing so much more regularly in the near future); and Hashirama, gleeful at Madara's glee.

---

Tobirama had not been alerted to Hashirama's plans to hand Konoha over to the dread Uchiha Madara. This was by design. If Tobirama had known, he would have just about gone insane doing everything he could think of to try to talk Hashirama out of it. For some reason, he still didn't trust Madara. For some strange, strange reason. Hashirama couldn't think of a thing Madara had done over the past... oh, what was it now, over three years since the initial Senju/Uchiha truce, over two years since the founding of the village? Madara hadn't done anything in the past three years that was at all untrustworthy, had he?

But Tobirama still didn't trust him, and Hashirama hadn't wanted to deal with his griping and his worries and so on and so forth. (On some level, he was afraid of his brother's accusations.) So he just... hadn't brought it up, until Tobirama was gone on a mission. He'd been gone for several days now in the Land of Straw, to assist a team in repairs at the site where they had battled the Yonbi. Clean-up had been ongoing since the battle itself. (Of course, Sarutobi Sasuke was there, too. He and Tobirama had probably spent more time cracking jokes than cleaning up.)

Today was the day he was coming back. Since Hashirama had the day off, he decided to wait at Konoha's gates to greet Tobirama when he arrived. And break the news to him.

And, most importantly, head him off before he could burst into the Hokage's office, discover Madara, and conclude that Hashirama had been assassinated.

Tobirama was pleasantly surprised to find that Hashirama was waiting to greet him, and slightly embarrassed. (He'd been hauled into the village half-bent, red-faced, held in an chokehold by Sasuke. Sasuke quickly let go and they straightened up.) He was unpleasantly surprised when Hashirama explained why he wasn't currently working.

"But you can't—" Between Hashirama's warning glare, and the attentive interest of eleven other ninja who would probably be absolutely fascinated to hear whatever the Hokage's younger brother was about to say about the Hokage's second-in-command, Tobirama changed his mind. "Right. Uh. Is he... already running the village, then? For today?"

"He has been since before you even woke up," Hashirama said. Based on the dark rings under Tobirama's and Sasuke's eyes, they'd had a late night, so they'd probably woken up late. Based on the relatively energetic states of their other teammates, they were the only ones.

Sasuke jabbed an elbow in Tobirama's ribs. "How about that?" he murmured. "Madara-san's been in charge for almost a day and a half."

Tobirama jabbed him right back. "Not in front of—" He cleared his throat. "Uh... So."

"So." Hashirama would have to hear this story later.

"So, who's supervising Madara? ... San," Tobirama asked.

"Tobirama, he's acting as Hokage today," Hashirama said. "Who usually supervises me?"

"Madara-san does," Tobirama muttered disapprovingly.

It wasn't the answer Hashirama was looking for, but he'd go with that. "And Madara-sama is perfectly capable of supervising himself as well."

Tobirama didn't seem to like that. But before he could say anything, Sasuke poked him again and said, "Hey. Have you ever heard any of those stories about demons that appear if you say their name?"

"No?" Tobirama said, giving him a puzzled look.

Sasuke gestured behind Hashirama. "Well, they're true."

"I heard that."

Hashirama and Tobirama both jumped, and Hashirama turned to look. Madara was leaning against a building in the shadows, just almost out of view. Where in the world had he—had Sasuke just called him a demon?!

"Just making conversation, Madara-san," Sasuke said innocently.

"Better a demon than an ape," Madara retorted (and yet so lightly, so flippantly), walking up to the group, and then promptly turning his attention to Hashirama and ignoring everyone else. (Hashirama thought nothing at all about Madara's comment; Sasuke had insulted him first, the retort was self-defense.) Before Hashirama could even ask what he wanted, he practically shoved a scroll into his hands. "The Nara clan has apparently decided they're too lazy to turn their patch of forest into an actual complex. They want your permission to leave it as a 'wildlife preserve' so they don't have to develop the land, and I can't sign off on it—"

He stopped suddenly, and then glanced (rather pointedly) between Hashirama and Tobirama. Hashirama realized this was the first time Madara and Tobirama had really seen each other since... he couldn't remember how long. The last time he could remember for sure had been at the meeting when Konoha had been formally named, and that had been two years ago. (They'd both gone on the mission to seal the Yonbi, but Hashirama had suggested Tobirama try to avoid Madara, and he had been more than glad to comply.) Hashirama hoped Madara didn't say anything inappropriate. He really, really hoped Tobirama didn't say anything inappropriate.

Tobirama did. "So where are your fancy robes, oh Hokage-san?" he asked. Madara was wearing his usual outfit.

"Red isn't my color," Madara said simply, as if that made any sense in the slightest. Hashirama was worried that Madara would add a harsher retort—he couldn't even imagine what he'd come up with. But, all he did was glance again between Tobirama and Hashirama, snort, and mutter to himself, "Somebody forgot to tell somebody they adopted him." (And there was that tiniest of smirks, that smallest of sparks in his eyes, enough to indicate that he was just joking and didn't mean anything by it—but of course nobody but Hashirama knew him well enough to pick up on that.) Madara raised his voice again. "I'll leave their request with you," he gestured at the scroll with the Nara clan seal, "and let you get back to your, ah... 'family' reunion." Without even waiting for a reply, in two leaps he was atop the nearest building, and running along the rooftops back to the Hokage Residence.

"Didn't even say hi," Tobirama grumbled, then looked at Hashirama. "What was he talking about with the adoption?"

Uh. What did he say? The last thing he wanted was for Tobirama to think (even more) badly of Madara, so... "Nothing," he said, looking at the scroll rather than his brother. "He was just talking about... nothing." Right.

Behind Tobirama, Sasuke snorted. "Same thing Madara-san's always talking about," he said, and Tobirama laughed.

It took a long time after that for Hashirama to start liking Sasuke.

---

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