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“I always thought blue suited you,” Hashirama says, putting his chin in his hand as he watches Madara pull on his nagajuban. “Long day, dear?”

Madara makes a noncommittal noise in his throat in response. Long day doesn’t even begin to cover it. Another year has come and gone, and the village is still hurtling towards disaster as fast as it ever was. Maybe even faster than before. He hates this time of year: hates thinking about everything he’s failed to do so far, hates thinking about the things he’ll never be able to do for as long as he lives.

Hashirama yawns mightily, sliding out of his nemaki. His necklace bounces on his bare chest. He smiles rather coyly up at Madara. “Well?” he says. “What do you feel like tonight? Slow and sweet? I could get the incense from the kitchen, if you’d like. Or we could try something different—we could use those new beads—”

Madara shakes his head. “Not tonight,” he mutters. “Tired.” He is not tired.

Hashirama pouts, looking a little disappointed. “Okay,” he says. “Come here, darling.”

Madara climbs into bed next to him, shoving several pillows aside to make room for his hair. He blows out one of the candles on the nightstand, watching the little lines of smoke weave around in the air before disappearing.

“Did you and Tobirama make any progress on that jutsu this afternoon?” Hashirama says sleepily, after a while.

Madara snorts. “Hardly,” he says.

“I’m so glad you’re cooperating with Tobirama,” Hashirama says with a smile. “I know how hard you two are working to get along. It really means a lot to me.”

Madara decides not to dignify that with a response. The only thing keeping he and Tobirama from tackling each other over the autopsy table these days is their shared desire to see their younger brothers again.

“Even if I do have to take over your portion of the paperwork while you two are down in the lab,” Hashirama continues, massaging his temples gently. “These grant proposals for the Academy are killing me, I swear.”

Madara sighs. Not for the first time today, he feels that restless, tugging feeling in his chest: the frantic need to do anything else, be anywhere else. For a split second, he feels as if he is being watched. He glances out at the balcony. There’s nothing there.

“Madara?” Hashirama says softly, blinking up at him. “What is it?”

Madara shakes his head. “Nothing,” he grinds out. “I’m fine. I’m going to sleep.”

Hashirama does not look convinced. Madara glowers at the window, and then abruptly smells smoke. He looks down. His chakra has left a smattering of angry burn marks all over his side of the sheets. Heat rises in his cheeks. Hashirama must be able to tell he’s in a particularly foul mood, from the way he’s losing control of his chakra like this. He might as well be a petulant child throwing a tantrum, in Hashirama’s eyes. This thought only makes him feel worse.

Hashirama sighs. “It’s as if you’ve been in a different world lately, Madara,” he says, and oh, how Madara hates that sad, disappointed voice—he just wants Hashirama to shout for once—at least he knows how to deal with angry people—

“You know,” Hashirama tries again, timidly.

Madara rolls over so that he’s staring at the wall. “What?” he snaps.

“I love you,” Hashirama says, running his fingers through Madara’s hair. “I’m very grateful to have you here by my side. I couldn’t have done any of this without you. I want you to know that.”

“So glad I could be of use to you and your precious village,” Madara mumbles, watching a very lost ladybug crawl around on the ceiling. At least the bed isn’t on fire anymore.

“My village?” Hashirama says. He laughs. “Madara, you and I both know this is as much your village as it is mine—”

“Don’t be a fool, Hashirama,” Madara snaps at the wall. It’s easier to do this if he doesn’t have to see Hashirama’s face. “And don’t take me for one, either. It doesn’t matter what either of us think anymore. The village is out of our hands now.”

He can tell Hashirama is frowning without having to turn around. He’s not combing through Madara’s hair anymore, either. Knowing he’s genuinely upset him now just makes Madara feel worse. And he knows that the longer he spends here, not making up his mind about what to do or where to go, the worse he will feel.

Hashirama takes a deep breath. He sighs.

“I know winter is hard for you,” Hashirama says. “It’s hard for me too. You know that. But that’s why we all have to try a bit harder. I’m sure that—”

“Don’t pretend that I’ll be able to just fix this whole mess by trying a little harder, Hashirama,” Madara says. “Not all of us are as lucky as you are.”

“Madara,” Hashirama begins, his tone still infuriatingly even. “What do you mean by—”

“Oh, just stop it, all right?” Madara shouts. “Stop acting like you’re not upset! Why can’t you just be angry at me like everybody else for once?”

Hashirama doesn’t respond. He goes completely still. Madara can’t bear to look at him. Instead he stares at the wall, clenching his fists under the blankets, and forces his brain elsewhere.

Katon Gōkakyū—that’s good for short-range attacks and diversions; leaves user open to attacks from behind while facing multiple opponents. Supplement with Haijingakure for surprise attacks. Then there’s Gōka Messhitsu: quite flashy but not as effective as Gōka Mekkyaku: extremely powerful, but requires a lot of chakra. That’s ram, bird, dragon, ox, snake, boar, tiger—

“Is that what you want?” Hashirama says, finally. “For me to be angry?”

Madara doesn’t really know how to answer that. He fiddles with the corner of the singed bedspread, holding his breath.

“The truth is, I don’t really want to be angry at you,” Hashirama says mildly. Madara chances a look. Hashirama’s eyes are wide and curious and kind. “I meant what I said, Madara. I have faith in you. I know that you know I’m not some naive fool trying to soothe you with empty words.”

Madara huffs and looks away again. Damn Hashirama. He’s doing it again, that thing where he acts maddeningly superior and unflappable and makes Madara look like a complete idiot at the same time. I’m tired of chasing after you, Madara lets himself think at last, tired of being left in your wake like this—I want out, I want out, I want out—

“Sometimes I wonder,” is what he says.

“Get some rest, Madara,” Hashirama murmurs. “You’ll feel better in the morning. I’ll make you breakfast in bed. And then, as soon as we finish our meeting with the Daimyo, I’ll take you out to dinner for your birthday!”

Madara feels sick. No, you won’t, he does not say to Hashirama, because I am leaving the village tonight.

“Hmm,” he says instead. He pulls the covers up to his chin. Hashirama is asleep within minutes, his arms folded securely around Madara’s chest. Madara does not return his embrace.

Madara can’t sleep. He feels as if something is tugging on the edges of his subconscious, like a nagging itch, a paper-thin knife dragging along his skin. Hashirama rolls over in his sleep, his mouth open slightly, his long hair spilling over three pillows. Madara watches his chest rise and fall for a while, feeling somehow more awake and alert than he had felt all afternoon in Tobirama’s lab.

He almost reaches out to cup Hashirama’s face with one hand, wanting to press his lips to his forehead one last time, but something stops him. Silently, he slides out of bed. The floor is cold beneath his bare feet. He crosses the room, shivering, and steps out onto the balcony.

The village is silent. Even the hardiest of the night owls have all gone home; all the bars are closed, and only a few sparse lights are still glittering here and there on the horizon. Madara looks up at the stars, winking coldly in the sky, and at the dark hole that he knows is the new moon. On the cliff, Hashirama’s stone face stares coldly out over the rooftops. It looks so unlike him, bathed from below in the harsh yellow lights from atop the Academy.

There’s that tugging feeling again. The back of Madara’s neck prickles and he turns around in a hurry. This time he thinks he catches a glimpse of something dark and wraithlike darting out of sight around a corner, something human-shaped that moves with a sort of fluid grace that no ordinary human could possibly manage.

Madara’s heart pounds. He really could just leave—quietly, without fanfare, in the middle of the night, like he deserves. He has failed. No, he corrects himself quickly. The village has failed him. Maybe not yet; maybe not today. But he knows exactly what is coming. Before long, the Senju clan will control Konoha, and war will unfold on a larger scale than ever before, and deep in the underbelly of the village, a new darkness will form and spread.

Madara makes up his mind in an instant. He steals back inside, pulls on his mantle, and sits down next to Hashirama on the bed in order to wrap his shins. The familiar motion grounds him, and he’s surprised by how calm he feels about the whole thing. Then he slips on his sandals, wraps his cloak around his shoulders, and casts one last look back at Hashirama’s sleeping form before taking off into the night.

He stops at Nakano Shrine first. In the silent meeting hall, he lights a candle for Izuna, and kneels in its bobbing light to trace his fingers over the familiar words engraved on the stone tablet before him.

Seeking stability, one god split into yin and yang…it is these opposing forces, light and dark, operating together, that give rise to all things in creation…

When did he first start feeling eclipsed by Hashirama?

When did he stop basking in Hashirama’s light and start feeling blinded by Hashirama’s uncannily magnetic power? When did the once-paper-thin difference between them widen into this unnavigable chasm? Was it when Hashirama was named Hokage? Or when the war had claimed Izuna, while Hashirama’s last remaining brother had survived? Or has he been unconsciously battling this nagging feeling of inferiority for as long as he and Hashirama have been friends? Hashirama, so admired, so adored and beloved, with his easy smile and his comfortable warmth…and he, Madara, who has attracted nothing but disgust and scorn from the Uchiha clan; who can only come to Nakano shrine to mourn for his brother in the dead of night, when he’s certain no one else will be there—

Someone is standing behind him.

He whips around, disturbing the flame from the candle on the floor. Shadows bounce wildly along the walls. There is a humanoid shape crouched at the back of the room, blending in almost perfectly with the fluttering shadows. He’s sure it’s the same thing he saw from the balcony. But as soon as he locks eyes on it, it oozes down into the floorboards and out of sight. He frowns.

Madara, he hears, in the back of his mind. The candle flickers madly. The chakra he’s sensing from the dark figure isn’t familiar, but—maybe—He knows who he wants it to be, but that would be impossible…but still…

“Izuna?” he says, feeling foolish as soon as he says it out loud. Of course it isn’t Izuna, because Izuna is dead and gone and never coming back, all because of Madara’s own foolishness. But if this tablet is correct—if there is even the slightest chance that he can reverse fate, make everything right again, he’ll take it.

The candle settles. The thing is gone. Light and shadow…yin and yang…He and Hashirama…and Izuna—  

He blows out his candle. Smoke curls up from the floor. Yes, he thinks. He knows exactly what he has to do.

Up on the cliff, an owl is calling somewhere out of sight. He casts one look back at the village, at the familiar array of towers and spires that Hashirama had built, so long ago now, before resolutely turning around.

You are making the right choice, says that voice again, sounding like teeth grinding against bone. This, of all things, gives him pause. He sits down in the grass. Something jabs him in the hip as he crosses his legs underneath him, and he scowls and reaches into his pocket and pulls out his leaf headband.

No, urges the voice. Go on. Do not falter.

Madara grits his teeth. He can’t move. Maybe he’s made the wrong choice, after all. He ties the damn thing around his forehead and curls up on the ground, at the base of the nearest sycamore tree.

I’ll leave on my own terms, he thinks, and hopes the voice can hear him. The moss beneath his body feels like thousands of tiny, soft stars; the bark is surprisingly smooth against his left cheek. It feels as if Hashirama is watching over him in his funny way, from somewhere far away, and it irks him to know he’ll never rid himself of Hashirama’s influence for as long as he lives. They have touched each other’s lives in a profound way, and now that Madara has known him, there is no going back…

Hashirama is the last thing on his mind before sleep claims him.