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Howling Out Here for the Morning Light

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The first time Tobirama got an answer for what the phantom pains were, was when he was barely a year and a half old, already learning to read in his mother’s lap.

His throat felt weird. It hurt. His nose burned. Enough to make him rub it with a chubby little hand.

“Tobira?” his mother asked, shifting him to feel his forehead, but it wasn’t hot. He wasn’t sick. He told her so, already self-assured before most other babies could speak in full sentences, and continued to tell her so as she carried him to the healer.

“Better safe than sorry, darling.”

The healer, old and grey, pressed his tongue down with a compressor and stuck something uncomfortably cold in his ear..

“Hmph,” the healer said. “There’s nothing. It must be an echo.”

“His soulmate? But he’s so young...”

“He is very aware for his age. It’s nothing to worry about.”

That night, he asked his mother what she meant.

“A soulmate is someone made just for you. They’re your other half,” she said.

He wrinkled his nose, confused.

“But I’m all of me.”

She laughed at him, but it sounded a little sad.

“Of course you are,” she said. “Now go to sleep.”

She was lying to him. Adults did that. He hated it.

She was gone three months later, lost in childbirth with a little girl, a sister he’d never know, gone before he was old enough to know to miss her.

Miss her songs, lullabies at night. Miss her soft, gentle hands and the way she’d read to him and Hashi-chan until they fell asleep. Miss the way she would look at Butsuma and tell him, in no uncertain terms, to wait. They were too young. Too small. He could damage them forever.

Yuuta-sama (not okaa-sama. Never that.) took her place less than six months later.

There were no more stories. No more songs.

No more soft hands.

Just a stranger in their home, obsessed with status and propriety and just as demanding as her other half, her apparent soulmate.

And she took Tobirama’s brother with her, fully prepared to do whatever it took to break that indomitable smile and turn him into the future clan head their father demanded.

Tobirama wouldn’t let her. Hashirama might be older, but he was softer. Tobirama, on the other hand, never cried anymore. He could take it, could take the constant training and censure, the constant drive for perfection.

If they broke his brother, the only reason Tobirama had to smile anymore, Tobirama didn’t know what he’d do.

So he stepped between them. Took whatever punishments his brother earned just for being normal, and kind, and loving, and everything Tobirama needed him to be to remind him that there were good people in the world. Would sneak into Hashirama’s room at night, even when his own eyes burned from too much reading in too little light, when his Anija fell asleep on his homework (always far too much) and finished it for him. Trained harder and harder, demanded all of their father’s terrible attention and pushed.

Look here. Don’t look behind me. He’s not for you.

He learned a lot over the next few years.

Like how people looked between him and his brother and his father and the memory of his late mother and wondered if his coloring was just a bad omen or a sign of something worse.

Like how his father was determined that his sons should be made of iron. That Tobirama would be the best, just as good as his brother, that no one would dare question his legitimacy. Butsuma would be evident in the power behind Tobirama’s sword even if he wasn’t in the albino’s coloring.

Like how a kunai felt in his hand. How to roll with a punch instead of against it. How to keep his feet under him as another boy twice his size came at him, ready to prove to everyone that he was just as good as the Mighty Butstuma’s son. (Nevermind that Tobirama was sparing with boys three times his age by the time he was four and holding his own.)

Learned that holding his own wasn’t enough. He had to win, or be kicked in the ribs.

“Get up. Again.”

Learned his father’s voice cracked like a whip and hurt just as much.

“Get up. Again.”

He learned what it felt like overextend and pay for it.

“Get up. Again.”

Learned how to fall without losing all the air in his lungs.

“Get up. Again.”

Learned how it felt to run until his legs and his lungs gave out.

“Again.”

Learned how to work through the nights until his head felt like it was splitting open.

“Again.”

Learned how to hurt.

“Again.”

Learned how to kill.

Again.”

But he learned good things too. Like how much his brother, and then his brothers loved him.

“I’ll kill him, Hashirama said, laying glowing hands on his brother and sewing the too young flesh back together. “One day, I will, Tobi-chan. I promise.”

Those kinds of thoughts were dangerous. Hashirama couldn’t let his contempt show. It would get him killed. But he also couldn’t hide it. He was the worst liar Tobirama had ever met.

So, Tobirama would lie for him. Would hide broken fingers and gashes, bruises and contusions that sometimes left him dizzy, because it wasn’t safe and Tobirama could take it.

(He learned just how comforting it was to feel someone under his skin, matching the feeling of hands hitting a wooden post to toughen them, of legs that burned in tandem as he ran, of someone else’s lungs burning and heart racing, keeping up with him as he pushed. Learned that someone out there was working hard, getting frustrated in a way that Tobirama never managed, getting tired in a way that Tobirama always felt, but not giving up, and learned that it made him want to smile.)

Learned what it felt like to be a baby cradling another baby with arms that could barely wrap around the precious burden.

That lesson was both the best and the worst, because it was perhaps more enraging than it should have been that their step-mother was just as bad a mother to her own children as she was to them.

Kawarama wouldn’t have Tobirama’s mother, even for the brief time that Tobirama had gotten to know her. Just that witch, who wanted nothing to do with her drooling, wailing spare of a child, who passed him off to a different attendant everyday. He wouldn’t know what it felt like to be held by someone who loved him.

So, even after hours and hours of training, of rolling, and kicking, and screaming; even when he felt like a puppet who watched their strings be cut by the person that made them, Tobirama would sneak into his baby brother’s room.

He’d pick up the baby, who’d been left crying for who knows how long, and rock him. Would sing him songs he only half remembered, would watch the moon go across the sky, let his voice crack from overuse, and sometimes even fall asleep with the bundle on his chest. Warm. Reassuring. Even as he woke on his perch in the windowsill to the howls of a hungry baby and a splitting headache in the pre-dawn light, he didn’t regret it at all, even when the lost sleep made him slip in his training.

Even when it led to a slap he knew better than to dodge because he’d got sloppy.

Even when it made him late to his duties without an excuse, made him face terrible, punishing, punitive training sessions for missing them entirely on days when Kawamara started crying and would stop.

But he wouldn’t let that stop him. He would hold Kawarama all night and feed him his breakfast and make sure that his younger brother knew that Tobirama would give anything for him. That he loved him, even if his parents set him aside.

Hashirama tried to help.

“It’s not your job, Tobi. I’m the eldest.”

“You have more than twice my workload. You have to do your duties as the clan heir. I will look after our brother.”

Tobirama wouldn’t put one brother in danger for the sake of another. It had to be him. It was the first time Hashirama bent to his wisdom when maybe, maybe, he shouldn’t have.

Because it was a lot. Even for Tobirama. The difference was, Tobirama had already learned to never let it show. Weakness just showed people where to aim.

Luckily, Kawarama was a bright child, might even be a genius like his older brothers. He missed Tobirama when he left for the day, screamed and cried and didn’t understand, but was okay. Tobirama’s blooming sensor skills let him check. Let him make sure. There was never a minute or moment when his brother wasn’t in range.

When another brother came along less than a year later, smaller than he ever remembered Kawarama being, and twice as loud, Tobirama didn’t know what to do. He wondered how, in all the world, he was supposed to manage to find time to care for another one, but he refused to see his brothers as anything less than a good thing. Anything less than a blessing, even if they made life impossible for a time.

Itama was, in some ways, Tobirama’s vindication, and his mother’s too. The boy was undoubtedly Batsuma’s child, but shared half of Tobirama’s looks.

It wasn’t his mother (or her supposed lover that some elders still whispered about) who’d passed Tobirama white hair and pale skin. It had been his father.

Tobirama didn’t know if that was a good or bad thing. If he hadn’t quietly wished that maybe everyone was right, and he didn’t share anything with that man.

It didn’t matter anymore. Tobirama, at barely five years old, had two more important things to worry about. Three, if he was honest. More and more, Tobirama felt like he was leaving his eldest brother behind as Hashirama refused to grow up. Refused to look at the world and see it as it was, but rather as it could be.

It was Tobirama’s favorite thing about him.

(And, most lucky of all, Butsuma’s soulmate was proud enough to join him on the battlefield, and stupid enough to get killed there. Tobirama was viciously relieved and couldn’t even feel guilty, couldn’t feel anything other than pleased when they buried her. He didn’t want his brothers to know her. Tobirama had known her for two years too many already.

That it didn’t seem to affect Butsuma at all, scared Tobirama more than he would admit. He didn’t know who was on the other side of his soul, who sometimes worried enough for it to burn in Tobirama’s chest, but he hoped they would at least care when Tobirama died.)

Some nights, he would be ready to scream as Itama’s cries woke Kawarama and he only had so many arms. He was so tired. He should just go to his own room and get some sleep. He should just ignore them and let them calm down. Everyone else did.

Which was the problem. If Tobirama didn’t do it, no one would.

On those nights, those nights, the best thing about them was that sometimes he could feel the quiet echo of bruises on someone else’s skin and know that no matter how hard it was, someone would be there to help him someday.

They didn’t hurt as often as he did. He didn’t know if that made him happy or sad, if he should feel anything at all about it.

Shinobi weren’t meant to feel. Weren’t meant to even really exist, Tobirama knew. Knew he had to be perfect.

Their father would accept nothing less.

(Maybe that his soulmate felt less pain meant that he was better than Tobirama, that he didn’t mess up as often. It almost made him jealous, and he felt lesser for it, unworthy of whoever caused the brilliance on the other side. Like an inferno, frustrated, worried, warm, when all Tobirama felt was ice. But he set it aside.)

He had his brothers. He had enough. There was no point in needing or missing someone he didn’t even know.

(If he thought it loud enough, long enough, he might even believe it.)

He would meet them someday, all soulmates did. Until then, he would patiently, quietly hope.

And in the meantime, he did the only thing he knew how to do. He worked harder.

He pushed harder.

He gave as much as he could. And found that he was capable of giving more than anyone else when he put cousin after cousin on the ground, rising up through the Senju to sit comfortably behind his Anija as the best of their generation.

It gave him a little breathing room, just enough to learn how much he loved learning, discovering new things, how even when exhausted, a good puzzle, a new theory that needed testing, could let him escape for hours at a time, even while training, even well into the night. Sometimes, he stayed up all night because he wanted to, rather than because he had to.

(He also learned that Butsuma wouldn’t interrupt him if he was developing better ways to kill.)

But it came at a price.

It meant he saw up close and personal the horrors of war too soon. It was nothing he couldn’t handle. His father’s slap on his shell-shocked face reminded him of that.

He knew better than to show fear, or pain, or hurt, or anything at all. Told himself the reminder was a good thing as blood filled his mouth. He spat out the loosened baby-tooth and focused on staying alive.

The only people he let see him smile anymore were his brothers. Hashirama would hug him, even still, even if he protested, said (lied) that he hated it, even as the blood on his hands left him feeling less and less human, even as he felt himself slipping. Itama and Kawarama would follow him around, even when they shouldn’t, would stand behind him and cross their arms like he did, spread their feet to match his stance and scowl, desperate to be just like the brother they loved, who loved them.

No. He saved his smiles for them.

Watching them grow, even as he felt himself honed into a weapon he hated, still made up the best part of his life so far.

(And then, still, there was his soulmate. Tobirama didn’t show it, but everything, every ache, down to the last papercut, he clung to every sign, secreted them behind a mask that felt more terrifyingly permanent everyday. Hid them in his heart and tried not to hope too much.)

His only regret was that his little brothers were just as talented, just as gifted as he was. Were pushed just as hard, despite his best efforts to the contrary.

Regretted that they joined him on the battlefield, as young as he had been his first time, far too soon.

Regretted, with everything that he had, that he wasn’t good enough or strong enough or careful enough when, at eight, Kawarama didn’t survive his third engagement.

They were soldiers. Expendable. And their father spent them like chattel, ready for the slaughter.

But Tobirama wasn’t ready, and neither had been Kawarama. Tobirama had been just fast enough to kill the man that gutted his brother, got there just in time to hold him as his insides spilled out, as the body he’d held as an infant, when he was all but an infant himself, shook and sobbed and fell apart in his arms.

Had to watch light and life leave eyes he loved.

It hurt. It hurt so much it felt like he’d never breathe again.

The fact that he could, the fact that he felt everything but could show nothing, that he had truly become everything his father wanted in a son, was somehow even worse.

He could be strong. Would be strong. What kind of person could watch their brother buried in a box and say nothing? Not shed a single tear? Not know how to any more?

“You coddled him too much. He died because he expected you to save him. Perhaps now you finally understand why I am so hard on you.”

Bullshit.

Bullshit!

(But what if it wasn’t?)

He did the only thing he knew how to. Stood between his idiotic older brother, who knew better than to speak back to their father, and protected him with a self made of stone. Didn’t let him, anyone, know he was hurting too.

(Weakness just showed people where to aim.)

But that night, he ran himself bloody. His feet bled, his hands bled, his knees, his arms, his gums-; all of him hurt but not nearly enough to drown out the gash he felt in his heart and couldn’t show.

He felt his soulmate’s worry so strong it was a buzz under his skin, but for once, it didn’t give him comfort. He didn’t stop. He didn’t know how.

The next morning, he got up and did the same. Could barely look at Itama, who looked so much like the brother he’d just lost as he ghosted outside and tried to beat the pain into submission.

Itama found him as the sun set, wrapped too small arms around him and held on until Tobirama held him back. Let him break apart and promised it’s okay, Tobi-nii. I won’t tell. I miss him too.

They cried together.

But he tried. Tried to take a step back, let Itama grow on his own.

And then his last baby brother had died alone.

He didn’t know what to do anymore. Other than get up, and carry on, and try not to fall apart.

There was no one left to stop him.

Instead, Hashirama found him. Hashirama, who only understood grief as something that overwhelmed you entirely, left you unable to function, who didn’t understand why it wasn’t the same for Tobirama, why Tobirama couldn’t, didn’t see all the ways in which his indestructible younger brother was in pain because it didn’t look like his own. Saw Tobirama get up, wash his face, eat breakfast, and go out to train as if nothing was wrong and didn’t understand.

Hashirama was hurting so much to see, to look. Tobirama was hurting too much to do anything else.

(How did Tobirama just get up and move on? Didn’t he know? Didn’t he care?)

Hashirama watched Tobirama training in the yard under his father’s approving stare, and waited, tears flushed on his face in a mix of jealousy and rage and grief and pain too big for the boy Tobirama had protected from the worst hurts. Didn’t recognize that his ability to grieve had been a gift from the brother who could no longer do the same and got angry.

Batsuma left hours later, but Tobirama stayed. Stayed until Hashirama confronted him.

“It’s just another day to you! You don’t care! You’re just like him.”

Then he’d run off, ran to wherever it was he hid these days and Tobirama was in too much pain to even be mad. He picked up his sword, blisters cracking the calluses on his hands as he refused to quit, and started again.

When he felt his stupid body give out beneath him, it was well past nightfall. He limped into the dark house. Meant to go straight to his room, had to walk past the one Kawarama and Itama had shared, and heard Hashirama’s sob from down the hall.

He thought about ignoring it and going to bed, but that would just prove Hashirama right, and he didn’t want Hashirama to be right.

If Tobirama didn’t do it, no one would. No one else cared when his brothers (brother, just one left) cried.

So, he slipped into his Anija’s room, sat on the bed next to him while he cried in the way Tobirama hadn’t since the were children.

(They were still. They were still children.)

He laid his cracked and bleeding hand on Hashirama’s back, ignored the way it hurt as he soothed his brother.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” Hashirama whispered, voice hitching in the dark. “It’s just so hard.”

“I know,” Tobirama said, even though he hadn’t known.

“I love you, Tobi-chan.” Hashirama hadn’t called him that in years.

“... I do care. I’m not him.”

Hashirama sat up. Rolled over. Looked at him with huge, earnest eyes and said, “Of course you’re not.”

But a year later, when push came to shove, Tobirama had to come to terms with just how ruined his father had left him. He wasn’t the first line of defense for his brother anymore. Now, like a sword shaped to a sharp edge with a thousand pounded folds, he had become their father’s weapon, used even against the one person he still wanted to protect.

“Your brother goes missing every day. I know you’ve been covering for him.”

Tobirama didn’t answer. It wasn’t a question.

“Follow him. You will tell me where he goes and what he does.”

“Yes, Tou-sama.”

“His intransigence cannot be tolerated. You understand, Tobirama?”

No. Not when Hashirama was smiling when he came home.

“Yes, Tou-sama.”

“Then go.”

And he went, and hated himself for it.

But nothing, nothing in his entire life, not his mother’s death, maybe not even his brothers’, had prepared him for what he found.

His brother with a friend. A friend. In Uchiha blacks. In the same clothes as the people who had murdered their brothers.

His father was right. He had clearly been too kind to his brothers. Had robbed them of the understanding of consequences.

Didn’t Hashirama know his friend, the one he sparred with, could kill him?

And then Tobirama would be alone. And that would be it. He’d have nothing left to fight for.

The boy Hashirama was sparring with stumbled in time with the ache in Tobirama’s heart at the thought. Stumbled in surprise. Took the blow Hashirama couldn’t pull in time right across the face, with a pain that bloomed across Tobirama’s own cheek.

No.

Please.

He had never really thought about who his soulmate actually was, just knew he loved them, loved how they loved so much it hurt, so much so it burned, that they worked so hard, right along with him, that they were made for him.

It was like watching another loved one die. Another death he didn’t see coming.

The boy below, beautiful and fierce, and so terribly terrifying, on equal footing with his Anija, stumbled again, clutched at his chest, gasped at Tobirama’s pain.

On instinct (oh Gods, he didn’t want to hurt him) Tobirama buried the pain.

Hid it.

It didn’t matter anyways. No amount of pain would change the reality of this situation, so what was the point?

For a brief moment, he wanted to go down there. As if his bones became a compass and the boy below (Madara. His Anija called him Madara) had become north.

Then, on the opposite side of the river, hidden in the tree but not beyond Tobirama’s sensing range, he felt someone else, felt them stalk, felt them leave. Watched the signature head back to the Uchiha compound, watched the way Madara and Hashirama showed no sign of knowing or noticing, and made a deduction.

He wasn’t the only one set to spying.

Telling his father was the hardest thing he’d ever done, other than bury two brothers, but he knew his duty, had it written on his broken bones, knew that lying would put Hashirama in a danger he might not survive, knew what sacrifice meant, and told the truth.

Mostly. He didn’t say the boy, Madara, his soulmate, was an Uchiha. Wanted just once to be wrong about something.

He wished he’d lied, wished he’d never seen the look of utter betrayal on his last brother’s face.

It hurt more than anything to know that his brother was more loyal to a friend he barely knew then to a family that included Tobirama.

Even worse was the way his soulmate’s eyes slid right through him. Didn’t notice him as he pledged to help his family kill them all.

Tobirama hoped his soulmate wouldn’t kill Tobirama himself. He didn’t think about his own death often, but he thought that would be…

Tobirama hoped wouldn’t have to try and kill Madara first, wasn’t sure he could.

Hashirama grew more and more distant after that day. Didn’t forgive him, not really, for taking the only thing he had left to be happy about from him. (Tobirama wasn’t something that made Hashirama happy. He wondered if he’d ever been.) Laid the same accusation that he was just like their father at Tobirama’s feet and didn’t apologize for it.

It wasn’t that they stopped talking, stopped supporting each other. It’s just now it was clear that it was out of duty rather than pleasure.

Hashirama didn’t take pleasure in almost anything any more, much less a brother he could no longer understand. Put his head down whenever Tobirama came into the room, going back to work, trying to become the future clan head they needed. (As far away from their father as possible, from Tobirama.)

Tobirama wanted to put it down to him finally growing up, but Touka, a cousin who’d stepped up to train with him as second best once Hashirama refused to do so anymore, said he seemed just the same to her.

Just him then.

Or maybe it was him that was changing. Growing distant.

He felt the lack of his younger brothers like a wound that wouldn’t heal. A constant, grinding frost in his chest that he had to hold there, lest it consume him. Felt his elder brother’s distrust in looks that burned, even if Hashirama said he had put Tobirama’s betrayal behind him.

(Unsuccessfully. Tobirama knew. His brother was still a terrible liar.)

Tobirama tried to understand.

“You don’t get it,” Hashirama said, staring out into the sunset like the melodramatic asshole he was. “Madara is like a brother to me.”

I’m your brother! He wanted to shout, wanted to beg.

Not that it mattered.

He didn’t even feel like much of a person anymore. He had lost his past with two brothers in the ground and one that could barely look at him anymore. Lost his future before he could even-

He was getting better at stopping those thoughts before they could overwhelm him.

He was bleeding. Dying. But they were all dying. And he had lived with pain for his whole life. And he knew that the only thing to do in the face of it was-

Get up. Again.”

So, that was what he did. He let himself get lost in war until it was all he knew. Became the monster everyone assumed, had always known, he was.

There was no point pretending otherwise now.

Their father had done his job well.

Tobirama had never rejoiced more than the day Butsuma died in his bed, bloated and choking from a cancer that turned his flesh as rotten as his soul.

That probably made him worse. He was past caring. This was what he was now. Monster, weapon, death. Everytime he killed another of his soulmate’s kin, felt Madara’s grief, a physical pain and it didn’t stop him, he proved it to himself a little more. He still did it. He still couldn’t regret it. Not when it stopped his own family from being slaughtered (though he couldn’t save them all, nothing he did was good enough).

But what could he do but get up. Again.

With every battle, every death, Hashirama, as their new clan leader, despaired even more.

With every battle, every kill, Tobirama heard the word monster whispered at his back and believed it a little more.

It was heartening to realize that Madara had grown strong enough to match his demigod of a brother. At least when Tobirama died, Madara would be able to defend himself. Hashirama wouldn’t kill him, certainly. The more Tobirama witnessed of their bouts, the more he was sure that his Anija was the only one who even could.

His soulmate didn’t need his protection (him). That was good.

“Senju!”

Izuna. If Hashirama found equal footing with Madara (and wasn’t that so unfair. Tobirama had never wanted anything so much as a connection with his soulmate and Hashirama got handed it on a silver platter.

The thought made Tobirama ashamed. He was supposed to be a better brother than that. Had to be. It was all he had left.)

If Hashirama found equal footing with Madara, then Tobirama was doomed to dance to the death with Uchiha Izuna.

He wished he could be like Hashirama, wished his opponent was willing to just pretend, wished every day they fought that he didn’t have to weigh staying alive against killing the only brother of his soulmate.

It was clear with every fight that Izuna wanted, more than anything else, to leave him a lifeless corpse to water the earth with his blood and feed the rats and worms with his flesh.

It would be so much easier if Tobirama felt the same.

Meanwhile, Hashirama liked to pretend that everything was fine, like they could just continue on like this. Like people, family, weren’t being left behind, cut down and torn apart by glowing eyes and cold, hard steel.

He would never, never advocate for his brother to actually kill Madara. (Quietly loved to hear the other man argue across the field with his Anija. He had a nice voice. Tobirama wanted to hear it all the time, speaking about anything but this endless war. About the bond that Tobirama desperately hoped the Uchiha didn’t know they shared). He thought he wouldn’t survive if Hashirama actually did, one day, kill Madara, but couldn’t speak in defense of Hashirama’s actions when the clan elders called him to task for it either.

“There has been no progress. You father would never have hesitated! Would never deign to offer peace as your family falls around you!”

Tobirama wanted to interject, wanted to defend both Hashirama and his soulmate by default, but couldn’t, not when Touka still hadn’t woken from whatever genjutsu the young Uchiha with the ponytail and the wicked staff had caught her in. Couldn’t do it, when he wasn’t sure who was right.

This couldn’t continue. Not forever. They would need an edge.

“I could have used your help in there,” Hashirama said while Tobirama worked through katas faster and faster, his hands a blur.

“What did you want me to say?” asked Tobirama, morbidly curious.

He was getting more and more used to letting down his brother. There was no winning here. Not any more.

As such, when Hashirama just sighed and left, Tobirama tried not to feel like he was ruining everything.

Hashirama wasn’t the only one hesitating.

So, the next day, kneeling in front of the small shrine in his bedroom, he lit an incense, and watched it burn.

Kawarama had died today. Even after years, it still felt like he was drowning, icy water filling lungs that screamed for air. He held the picture, frame worn from years of being held in his rough hands, and looked down at the faces of the only two people he knew, without a doubt, had loved him. Looked at their faces and remembered holding them through the night, and wanted, more than anything, to hold them again.

On the other end, Madara was having a quiet morning, not training for once, and the loneliness from the lack of shared anything felt like it was tearing him in two. He didn’t want his soulmate to hurt, not really, just wanted desperately to feel him right now, to pretend that he was there with him, even if Tobirama knew he never would be.

Madara was an Uchiha. He’d never love a Senju, much less the monster Tobirama had become.

Tobirama would have given anything to feel, just once, what it felt like to be held by him.

He put the photo back, and stood.

(His brothers would be so ashamed.)

The next time he fought with Izuna, he would do what his brother couldn’t, and end this. One way or the other.

He would figure out his hiraishin if it was the last thing he did, if he had to fly through a hundred branches and into a hundred walls. He would.

It wasn’t like his soulmate could ever love the monster he’d become anyways. What was the point in holding back at all anymore?

Mito found him. Hurt and bleeding. He barely knew her, but everytime he saw her and Hashirama together, magnetic and so in love, he felt a little further away.

But she was equal parts stubborn and kind and physically stopped him. Brought him inside. Made him tea and soup and told him Touka was finally awake.

His Anija had no idea how lucky he was.

He would be alright.

Another day, another battle, and all his pain and all his anger at his own helplessness was ready to burst.

Izuna was in fine form that day, grinning savagely as he pushed, pushed him, pushed him back. Caught Tobirama in a genjutsu for only a moment but it was enough to feel like a scalpel to his brain. It made him flinch, fall back.

So this was it, then. Tobirama had been training, but so too had Izuna. He was faster, catching up. Tobirama wouldn’t be able to hold him. Would have to kill him.

Tobirama tried to harden himself for this. He had felt, still carried, the pain of his own brothers’ deaths. He couldn’t imagine that the echo of his soulmate’s pain would be any less than agony.

And it would come at his own hand.

He was halfway through the motion. Halfway through the step. Halfway to sending his sword through Izuna’s chest.

But he couldn’t.

As he fell into existence beside the man who could maybe, in another life, have been like a brother to him, for just a brief moment too long, he hesitated. Changed course even though he knew it would cost him.

He put his blade behind Izuna’s knees instead, a longer, slower stroke. Felt Izuna’s panicked strike go right passed his armor, slice through the lacquered edge and go through him.

Izuna went down, and couldn’t rise again, not even as Tobirama, a bloodsoaked wraith in blue and white, stood over him with his sword raised.

But there, above a man he’d fought for years, even with his own side bleeding an alarming amount, the pain making him feel lightheaded, he felt Madara’s chest wrenching fear, and knew. He’d made the right choice for once.

He took a step back.

And then another.

It took almost nothing to convince Hashirama that this was his chance, maybe all of their chance, while he bled into his armor, stained his shirt, and tried not to sway.

That was a good thing, as he didn’t think he could manage much more.

The pain made him dizzy, but he stayed up straight long enough to make it home, to send Hashirama off to the elders to twist their arm, get them to sue for peace one more time. This was his only chance. Tobirama wouldn’t be able to buy him another.

Long enough to make it to his room, lock the door, and strip off his armor. His hands shook as he went into shock, but he made do. Made his own hand, so much less competent than his brother’s, glow a weak green.

He knitted together the deepest of the damage, reconnected tissue and muscles, and ran out of strength for more.

Touka stitched up the remaining gash and promised not to tell for all of her bitching.

She was his favorite cousin.

So, they had peace. Peace. The Uchiha agreed, signed a treaty, but treaties were broken all the time.

Tobirama didn't get his hopes up.

"We're going to build a village. Madara and I."

“... Okay.”

“You’ll help me, won’t you?”

Pausing his sword mid-motion, ignoring the way it pulled on his stitches, he looked over to his Anija, leaning on a tree he’d grown on a whim nearly ten years ago, and wondered why there was any doubt.

“Of course I will.”

His brother beamed at him. For the first time in years, he felt like he could smile back.

The village seemed to go up overnight, though perhaps only to him, because Tobirama couldn’t remember the last time he’d gotten a full night’s sleep. The days were all blurring together, as there was always more to do.

Instead of toiling to kill, they were toiling to build, and maybe Hashirama was right. Maybe this could be everything they’d ever wanted.

And he got to see Madara as his brother did. The Uchiha was brash, bold, and entirely present in every room he was in. Tobirama could barely take his eyes off him, even when the other man barely saw him, barely looked at him. The still healing wound in his side was almost nothing in comparison.

It was okay though. He had time.

He didn’t say anything. Not yet. Thought he might wait until things between him and the Uchihas in general settled down a bit. As far as everyone (except Hashirama, the oblivious dolt, Tobirama thought, wryly fond. Some things never changed) was aware, the Uchihas wouldn’t willingly come within ten feet of the Senju who’d killed so many of their kin.

Tobirama couldn’t blame them, even if it stung. He could only wait, and hope time could heal the wounds he’d carved open with solid steel.

He didn’t have much time to dwell on it. The days seemed too short as he took more and more of Hashirama’s work as well as his own. His brother had tried to protest, tried to get him to slow down and take more breaks (likely at Mito’s insistence. He caught her watching him with worry more than once), but honestly, he would rather just do Hashirama’s work correctly the first time then having to redo it and then fill out more paperwork about why it had to be redone. Save himself the headache.

He didn’t know why his brother thought sending Izuna to help him would make the situation any better.

Izuna still hated him, and never missed an opportunity to be contrary. It would be more annoying if it didn’t hurt so much.

We could have been brothers. I would have loved you for his sake.

But he didn’t say that, rarely even thought it. Just got to work.

Hashirama might be able to raise buildings out of the ground with only half a thought, but getting them all attached to the electrical grids and fitted with running water was more than a little beyond his Anija.

And beyond Izuna, apparently, or at least beyond the other’s patience level.

“Okay, the normal humans are going to bed now,” Izuna snarked.

As it was two in the morning, Tobirama conceded that was a fair point.

He wouldn’t rest until they were finished, didn’t know how to, but he knew better than to try and hold other people to the same standard.

“As you wish,” he said and looked back down at his blueprints.

His head hurt. It made him sharper than intended.

“You know what, fuck you,” Izuna sneered.

Too tired to even be annoyed, Tobirama just looked up and consciously raised an eyebrow. Izuna responded by tossing the calculations he had been supposedly working on for the last six hours on the table in front of the Senju.

“Why don’t you finish them if you’re going to be an asshole,” Izuna said before stalking out of the room, slinging one last parting shot that over his shoulder.

Freak.”

Well. He supposed it was a step up from monster. He took the scroll, sighed as it added just another thing to do.

He finished Izuna’s work after his own, late in the evening of the next day, still having not slept. The other man hadn’t shown up for work that day at all.

Fine. Tobirama would bring it to him. Then he would go to bed.

And maybe just see Madara for a moment. He and Izuna were in the same place after all, just a few stories above in his soulmates office. Not that he used his sensor abilities to watch the other man (always); it was just a convenient way to locate his wayward ‘help’.

Maybe seeing Madara would help him sleep. Just a moment, to remind himself that his soulmate was there.

“-e’s Senju Tobirama,” his soulmate’s voice stopped him, just feet from the other man’s door. He had never heard Madara say his name before. “The whole world knows he’s a heartless bastard. Gods only know how he managed to convince Hashirama that he’s a good person.”

Oh.

Well.

Now he had confirmation.

Tobirama had known how Madara felt. He didn’t get to be surprised or feel like his lungs were screaming, his heart breaking. Knew better than to be surprised, even if he’d been stupid enough, just for one moment, to hope.

Even his soulmate knew the truth.

“I wonder what his soulmate is like?” Hikaku, the other signature in the room, and a man Tobirama barely knew asked. Asked. Like he had the right.

Izuna answered, and Tobirama wished he hadn’t.

“If he even has one. Can you imagine being matched with that monster?”

Tobirama realized that he didn’t want to be here. Wanted to run, to hiraishin away, but couldn’t. His legs turned to concrete beneath him, and he had to know.

“Fate worse than death, I’m sure,” Madara said, vicious and cruel and all the things Tobirama knew the man wasn’t, at least to everyone but him.

Tobirama couldn’t breathe. It only took a second to for the world to fall out from under his feet again.

In one instant, every dream Tobirama had never let himself have crumbled to ash. A wasteland scorched by a burning wind that no longer brought comfort, only devastation in its wake. Carried fire. Burned.

He hadn’t known it could hurt this bad, the death of hope.

There was a gasp on the other side of the door, and Tobirama knew what a fool he was. Even without trying, his very existence hurt his soulmate.

So, Tobirama did what he had done since his ruined childhood and forced down the shards of glass that made up what was left of his heart, pushed them down, ground them to dust, and made himself stone.

There was nothing but stone left. (Liar. There was dust and ash and pain and nothing left-)

But he wouldn’t be a fucking coward. Seeing Madara… It would hurt now. It would hurt later. Best just get it over with.

He knocked on the door, made himself stone, didn’t let his eyes linger on the face he’d loved, twisted in anger and disgust at the very sight of him - he should have known - and got through the interaction as politely as he could while falling apart.

“What?” Madara’s voice mangled his mind, sharp as any barb, and Tobirama was viciously proud of the way he didn’t let it show, just held out the scroll he’d wanted to deliver.

“For Izuna. The calculations he requested.”

He very carefully didn’t flinch as Madara reached for him in anger. Let the other man rip his reason for being here from his hand, just grateful he could leave.

Izuna didn’t let it go, of course.

“Hey, Bastard,” the younger brother said and carelessly drapped an arm over Madara in the way that Tobirama had always wanted to, another needless hurt, as if Tobirama hadn’t received the message that he was unwelcome loud and clear.

“Uchiha-san,” he said with a voice that didn’t shake.

Every time he felt grateful to his father for his childhood was another step towards the grave. He felt like he’d passed miles here in these moments when his face showed none of his feelings.

“It’s late, Senju. Shouldn’t you be home by now. Normal people need eight hours of sleep, you know.”

Tobirama, just for that one moment, wished he’d killed him.

Another thing he’d never show.

“There’s still much to do,” he said, not even lying. There would be no sleep tonight, maybe never again. “If you’ll excuse me. I will return to it.”

He bowed to Madara, and knew that those words were a swan song, mournful and the last that he would say, that would come from Madara’s soulmate, rather than the statue, the weapon, he was erecting to take his place. (Would never again see the man as his to want.

He had never deserved him in the first place.)

(Another coffin in the ground.)

And if he put more chakra into the hiraishin that carried him away, just to make the flash brighter, just to remind them of who and what he was, well, it was only what a monster would do.

It took him another two days to drop. He was secretly (pathetically) grateful that Izuna seemed to have decided to ignore him entirely during that time. It made things easier.

(It didn’t make it easier. Nothing could make this easier.)

The first thing he did after he woke up was find Mito.

She was in the main house, in her favorite courtyard, and welcomed him with a hug.

If he wasn’t so close to breaking, it might not have inspired much reaction. As it was, it made him shake, just subtly enough for his far-too-intelligent-for-his-idiot-brother sister-in-law to notice.

She made him sit.

“What is it, Tobirama?”

He thought about not answering, knew she’d see right through him, but couldn’t think of another way. He felt Madara on the other side of the village burn with worry eating into his chest and it wasn’t fair. Tobirama had done enough to him by virtue of his existence. It wasn’t fair that he’d have to hurt because Tobirama couldn’t get himself under control.

“... In the Land of Whirlpools, are there any seals that can cut off the link between soulmates?” he asked the tea she’d poured him.

She gasped, a subtle thing, and Tobirama didn’t look up. Let himself not see.

There was a fine line between bravery and masochism that was becoming more and more blurry every day.

“Why would you even ask that?” she demanded, voice as sharp as steel.

He couldn’t answer, (ashamed,) so he didn’t.

“... who is it?”

He began to shake his head, but Mito didn’t allow it, reached across the table and took his arm.

“Tobirama. Tell me.”

He couldn’t, couldn’t refuse. He was so fucking weak. (Tired. So tired.)

“Madara.”

She stiffened, horrified. Tobirama quickly decided he didn’t want to know why.

“Are there any-, can you-”

She didn’t let him finish. He didn’t even know how to start.

“How long have you known?” she demanded instead, hand tight on his arm.

“Mito…”

He didn’t want to tell her. Didn’t want her to know how many of his soulmate’s family he had killed. Had killed while he’d known. Didn’t want her to know what he was the way everyone else seemed to. (She never had. Every bit as kind as Hashirama, she’d never seen him for what he was.)

“Tell me.”

Mito had a voice like iron when she wouldn’t be refused. It matched her spine and made her perfect for his Anija, too flighty and easily swayed for his own good, but it also meant that Tobirama couldn’t refuse her anymore than he could his brother.

He loved her. Like always, it made things harder. Maybe his father was right all along.

“Long enough to know that he hates me and that it isn’t likely to change.” Silence followed, aching, and he wasn’t above begging, not now. “Mito, please.”

He had known her for almost half a decade now, and was still surprised when she came around the table and wrapped her arms around him, let him hide his face in her kimono so that just for a moment he didn’t have to pretend.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered.

It gave him just enough permission to admit (to himself if no one else) that he was sorry too.

It also didn’t change the fact that she couldn’t help him. No such thing existed, which he had guessed would be the case, but was desperate enough to try. (No one else was monstrous enough to separate themselves from their soulmate forever, selfish enough.)

So, he would try instead to feel nothing. He’d been heading that way for years, slipping since they’d put Kawarama in the ground. It would be… worth it.

For Madara.

The small everyday pains he could do nothing about, but he refused to give into his own heartache. Not for Madara’s sake, but for his own. There was nothing there to mourn. Nothing at all.

(Just everything.)

But nonetheless, life moved on. The world kept turning. Tobirama put a lid on the coffin of the future he wanted and made do with the one he had.

The longing never left, but sometimes it was easier to deal with than others.

It took weeks, but Izuna finally showed back up at the office. Tobirama wished he hadn’t.

He didn’t say anything at first, and Tobirama was not going to be the first one to speak.

“You’re an asshole,” Izuna said. Tobirama was proud of the way it barely registered. He was getting better at this. And then Izuna continued, “But so am I, so I guess I can’t hold it against you.”

Which was quite possibly the last thing Tobirama had expected, right along with the contrite grin that met him when he looked up.

“What do you think, Senju? Should we let bygones be bygones and try and figure this ‘peace’ thing out?”

It was more than a little late, but he could do nothing but nod.

“Alright,” he said, and went back to work, but Izuna rocked back on his heels, pleased with himself, and grinned.

It should have been a warning sign.

“Okay then. Wanna get some lunch?”

Izuna had just got here, but Tobirama knew a peace offering when he saw one. Negotiating with three brothers had taught him as much.

“... Fine.”

After that, somehow, he had acquired an Uchiha stalker, just at the moment he least wanted one. It was hard to shake the determined Uchiha loose, as they both worked together and Izuna took it upon himself to try to drag Tobirama around the newly operating food stalls and try to force regular hours on him.

(It didn’t help. Not really. Izuna was tolerable, but he was also a reminder of what, exactly, Tobirama had lost.)

Sometimes, he had enough work to keep him too busy to think about it. It was never hard to convince Hashirama to give him more to do. His brother was just as swamped as he was, maybe moreso, trying to both lead and inspire and keep more clan joining rather than allying against them, getting the daimyo to accept the new reality of the peace and Konohagakure’s place within it.

Sometimes, it became apparent that Izuna was learning when to step between Tobirama and the stupidity of others and just get things done for him when his head hurt and he couldn’t handle the banalities of cajoling people into doing what they were supposed to be doing. Would make him almost smile with the eyerolls he shared behind the Incompetents’ backs and the biting commentary that had become commiserating rather than attacking.

Sometimes, the Uchiha would bring him lunch to share when Tobirama hadn’t taken a break all day, finally realizing that the ‘out to lunch’ was not a thing that would happen often, if at all. Whereas before, Izuna would stay in the office they shared and do desk work while Tobirama got pulled all over the village to put out fires (sometimes literally. Turns out, the Uchiha were pyromaniacs even when they lived in a village made of fucking wood. Even Izuna had gone from amused to annoyed after the third time), to trotting along beside him. His company became almost constant.

Sometimes, he was tempted to call them friends.

Then Izuna would mention Madara, and Tobirama would be reminded of what he really thought (Izuna, Madara, both who hated him, thought him a freak, a monster, a fate worse than death), and reminded himself that he knew better. Izuna was only behaving for the sake of the peace. And Madara would always abhor him.

Tobirama would change the subject as soon as he thought Izuna could be distracted.

Everytime felt like Izuna was slicing him open again.

(But sometimes, sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes he let Izuna talk about his brother, who hung the moon, for hours. Pretended he was only half listening, while he sucked up every ounce of it like a man dying of thirst. Maybe he was.

Or maybe he just needed to remind himself that Madara was doing fine without him.)

They met with Hashirama and Madara twice a week, to keep the leadership on the same page. Tobirama spoke when spoken to, gave his opinion when they needed to hear it, but didn’t let himself look. Didn’t let himself want. He focused on his brother, he let Izuna speak for him more often than not, and he tried not to forget.

Fate worse than death, I’m sure.

So, no. He didn’t look. Ground his teeth, kept eyes forward, and pretended each moment in Madara’s presence, when he wasn’t wanted there, wasn’t like rubbing salt into a festering wound.

But, as it always did, time moved forward.

It would be the first anniversary of Itama’s death since they’d founded the village. As always, it felt like it came too soon.

“We’re holding a vigil for him tomorrow at the main house. You should come,” Hashirama said the evening before as the sun went down, leaning in on the back doorway of Tobirama’s house. It was on the edge of the Senju quarter, which let him have his own training space behind it, with a pond, and a meadow with targets for him to hit.

He had spent most of most of the nights of the last week out here, pushing his body harder and farther than he had in years.

It was the first year he would spend away from the land that held the bones of his brothers on the anniversary of their deaths. There was nothing to miss about the old Senju lands but that. It was impossible to forget sometimes that in moving here, in starting again, in peace, they’d had to leave behind their dead.

It was almost like losing them all over again.

“I don’t think that would be wise, Anija,” Tobirama answered, not wavering from his forms as he refused to let his aching muscles shake.

Hashirama sighed.

“You can’t hide out here forever, Tobirama. We’re your family. We’re here to help you.”

In no way would having them all sit around in black, pretending and putting a show of sharing a grief they didn’t feel, help when he already felt like he couldn’t breathe.

He moved faster. Hit harder. And waited for his Anija to just go away.

After a long moment, Hashirama sighed again, and left.

Tobirama told himself he was thankful for it.

Touka was there before dawn the next morning. Tobirama was very aware of just how much she hated mornings, but she showed up just as the birds began singing (and he was ready to quit pretending to sleep) to haul him out of bed, put his sword in his hand, and give him something to hit that could and would fight back.

He had never been more grateful.

She was still his favorite cousin.

She beat him black and blue, his already exhausted body slow enough for her to push him, make him focus, and for just a few hours he could not manage to think about anything else but this.

Then she dragged him inside, had him clean up while she made them a late breakfast.

He stripped off his armor, brushed his teeth, showered, and tried not to feel like he was cracking apart as he put on his mourning clothes.

Breakfast was almost ready when he came out. Just the smell of it made him nauseous.

Instead of helping Touka, his feet pulled him to his personal shine to his brothers, like gravity, kept pristine in the same room as his desk and the couch he slept on more often than his bed. He knelt in the same place he knelt every morning, lit an incense, and wished his own childhood had left him with the ability to cry for them as he held their picture, the two of them smiling and leaning on each other.

They deserved so much more; more than death. More than him.

There was a knock on his door.

Sighing, he expected it was Hashirama here to nag, again. Touka went to open it, but he waved her off.

“I’ve got it,” he said. She couldn’t tell Hashirama ‘no’ the way he could. He put the picture back on the shrine. Let himself rise and drag his eye and feet away.

It wasn’t Hashiama. It was Izuna.

“Morning, slacker,” Izuna said cheerfully.

Any other day, the teasing insult wouldn’t have even registered. Today, with everything so much closer to the surface, it made him angry in a way he hadn’t been in years.

“What do you want, Uchiha?” It came out low, dangerous.

Izuna took a full step back.

“Uh, it’s late on a Wednesday? Where have you been?”

It wasn’t accusing exactly, but it didn’t have to be. Tobirama saw red.

“I told you last week I wasn’t coming in today. I told you yesterday. I don’t understand why you can’t just fucking listen, for once!”

“Hey!" Izuna said, offended with maybe good reason, but it was today and Tobirama had told him. "Don't be mad at me! Your electrical grids in sector sixteen are going fucking haywire and you’re just sitting aro-”

“Then maybe, for once in your life, figure it out. I shouldn’t have to hold your hand because you can’t keep it together for two minutes do to your own incompetence!” Tobirama snarled, and Izuna-

Izuna took another step back. Reached for his sword.

As if Tobirama would hurt him.

Tobirama had never, not once, struck someone in anger. He was more than a little horrified to realize that he was about to. About to lunge at Izuna and tear his throat out like the monster he was.

Hashirama’s voice, painfully, brutally honest, “You’re just like him.”

“Hey!”

Touka’s hand was on his shoulder, pulling him back behind her.

“Izuna,” she said in a sickly sweet voice that meant imminent death. “Fuck off.”

And she closed the door in the brat’s face.

“What an asshole,” she hissed, and took Tobirama by the shoulder, led him to the table, sat him down, and made him eat.

Less than five minutes later, there was another knock on the door.

She smiled at him, terrifying, and said, “I’ll get it.”

Tobirama could honestly say he was glad he wasn’t Izuna at the moment.

But it wasn’t Izuna. It was Mito, her hair straight, not in her usual double buns but instead hanging limp, blood red against the black of her mourning kimono.

She’d brought flowers and a gentle hug when she led Touka back into the kitchen.

“I’m gonna go, cousin,” Touka said, not wanting to intrude. “Don’t worry, I’ll sort out grid sixteen.”

She took her naginata and left.

Mito handed him the flowers.

“For your shrine.”

He took them, touched, but not knowing what to say.

She cleaned up breakfast for him. She didn’t mention his still full plate.

“Don’t worry about the vigil,” she told him as she dried a pan. “I know Hashirama tried to guilt you into going.”

Tobirama sighed, and set his own pan aside.

“He’s right. I should-”

“He is many things,” interrupted Mito. “Right is not one of them.”

He walked her to his door, held her hand while she slipped on her elegant shoes.

She used that hand to draw him into a hug he didn’t know how to return. “You leave Hashirama to me. You just do whatever you need to do today.”

She laid a hand, gentle, but calloused from work, on his cheek, and left him.

He took her flowers to his shrine, laid them there, a gift from a woman who hadn’t even know them, and tried not to bleed.

Time passed, shadows marching across the wall, as he sat vigil.

The next person who pounded on his door was the one person he wanted to see more than anything.

He was also the one that could hurt the most. Tobirama knew which to expect, but it was somehow worse than he thought.

This was the one time Madara had ever sought him out.

And he was here to yell at him. Scream at him. Be cruel. Today.

About the thing he had spent most yesterday finishing for him, even though his head hurt so much his eyes wanted to bleed. About a ranking system for shinobi that had waited six months to be devised and implemented, and was suddenly, now, today, supposed to be vital? He’d only spent time finishing it, pushed himself when all he wanted to do was curl up and die, to make his soulmate happy. So he could grieve in peace today with a clear conscious.

But it wasn’t good enough. Nothing ever was.

Tobirama honestly didn’t have any idea what he said to the other man, but when Madara took a step forward, wanted to shove his way into Tobirama’s home, the place he wanted him in more than anything, but for none of the reasons Tobirama wanted him there.

Thought he could come here and demand anything of Tobirama.

No.

No.

For once, in his whole miserable life, he decided that no. Not today.

He didn’t know what he said, couldn’t really hear past the buzzing in his ears, but Tobirama had years, decades, of practice pretending.

He put a hand on his soulmate’s chest and pushed him away. Closed the door.

It was the last nail in the coffin, he realized later. It wasn’t enough, not really, to know that Madara hated him, to really kill his dream for them as ever being a them. He thought it had been, but this, he realized. This was it.

He didn’t even want to make this better anymore. Decided that he didn’t want Madara to know, ever. At all.

And that was his fucking choice.

He left Madara on the other side of his closed door, went back to his shrine, and realized that he felt nothing. Nothing but grief. And loneliness.

They were old companions. Almost welcomed at this point, when he learned that the crushing feeling of disappointed hope was even worse.

And still, time moved on. Madara might still be there, on the other side of the village, or in his office, or half a country away with missions that were finally coming in, or even in the room with him, but Tobirama held himself apart ignored, ruthlessly, the way he wanted to lean into a man who wouldn't catch him.

Madara might feel like his magnetic north, but Tobirama had long, long, painful practice at not getting what he wanted. And knew that the only way forward was to simply carry on.

Get up. Again.

So, he did.

The village continued to grow. Since he would never have his soulmate, he dedicated his life to his brother’s dream instead. Peace. It was as good as any. Better.

He felt no regrets as he did whatever was required so that the children of the village could grow up safe. (The way Itama and Kawarama hadn’t.)

It was a good dream. And it occupied his time. Brought him fulfillment he hadn’t felt since he’d held his infant brothers’ in his arms. The months flew by.

Especially when another Uchiha, much younger, half as tall, and twice as clingy ran headlong into him in the marketplace. Kagami was young and brave and full of life. Inquisitive, with more energy than he knew what to do with.

He wanted to know everything. Dogged Tobirama’s steps, even after his mother tried to make him stop. Dragged his friend, a young but talented Sarutobi, along to watch Tobirama do everything from train to direct construction crews, to watching (distracting) him while he did paperwork (Izuna, a shared apology between them and the confrontation on Tobirama’s porch all but forgotten, let them in, the traitor).

He didn’t want to train them. Not for a shinobi life. Not after the last two little boys he’d trained (cared for), he’d gotten killed.

Touka called him an idiot.

She might have a point. He couldn’t watch them do things wrong; their lives depended on their skills. So, he corrected their stance, their holds on shuriken and kunai, things that could save their lives, or lose them if done incorrectly, and suddenly he had two students.

Kagami’s Uchiha parents even made it official, and filed the newly created joint paperwork for an apprenticeship. Hiruzen’s parents followed suit a week later.

They spent almost every morning with him, when he wasn’t out on missions.

(Missions which he loved and hated. Loved them, because they gave him a very good reason to keep moving.

Hated them, because since his very first one, all those months ago - had it really been a year? - just days after overhearing Madara and Izuna and Hikaku tear him apart over takeout, Hikaku had begun joining him on every mission.

He understood that the Uchiha had good reason not to trust him. That didn't mean he had to like the fact that they felt the need to send a chaperone.

Surely they could trust him by now?)

(Of course not.)

But the boys gave him a reason, even if for only a few hours a day, to feel something.

Just a month after Kawarama’s death day, Kagami’s parents became the first shinobi to die in service to the new world they were trying to build, and it seemed so wrong.

Tobirama didn’t know how to help (knew nothing would), but he did what he could. He got vengeance for the boy so it wouldn’t consume him, held him when he needed it. Took him home, laid him down on a couch the boy had slept on a dozen times before, let him huddle close and cry, and let him stay, and tried to impart the most important lesson he had learned years go, was still learning.

(Not “Again,” said with a fist. Never that.)

Instead, as he rubbed the still crying boys back, he said, “This too shall pass.”

Grief was hard on the young boy. Kagami didn’t have Tobirama’s practice with it, but he made him proud nonetheless when Kagami asked to start training again just three days later.

It was during one of these training sessions that Madara sought him out for the second time.

He wasn’t sure he wanted to know why, hoped it was just for village business (though if there was another fire, he wouldn’t be held accountable for his actions).

“Can I help you, Madara-sama?” Tobirama asked, looking to where the man lurked, but not seeing.

“I was just checking on Kagami.”

Tobirama hadn’t really looked at his soulmate for nearly a year. Had known that it would be unnecessarily masochistic and kept his eyes away, always sliding over the Uchiha like water over rocks.

But surprise made him look. And he was right. Down, beneath all the walls he’d built, just the sight of Madara, of the doubt on his face, stung deep in Tobirama’s chest.

“Kagami is perfectly safe with me,” Tobirama said.

“Of course he is,” Madara said, sounding as thought Kagami was anything but.

From the time he was small, and hurting so much he could barely feel Madara under it all, but already raising two boys who looked up to him like he was something worth looking up to, Tobirama had dreamed that maybe one day, in a future he wasn't sure he'd reach, he would get to raise children of his own, with his soulmate at his side. Raise them well, gently, in a world without war.

That was a dream he'd buried a long time ago, but it burned, flayed him inside that Madara still, after years of peace, of Tobirama trying so hard to make all of this work, Madara still didn't trust him. That the only time he could be bothered to seek Tobirama out was because he didn't trust him not to hurt a child.

Indignant. That's what he felt. Indignant, and hurt.

He turned back to his students.

“Kagami, Hiruzen, that’s enough for today,” he said, calling a halt to their practice. It was enough. He didn’t want to watch anymore, reminded of the likelihood that he would get them killed.

Like Kawarama.

Like Itama.

Madara was right to be worried.

Tobirama didn’t let that show. Instead, he ruffled the boys’ hair, assured them that they had done well, and sent them on their way.

He let himself look at Madara, just one more time, just to remind himself don’t, before he let himself flee.

It hurt. Not nearly as much as it would have a year ago, but more than it should have.

Still, he acknowledged that perhaps he had been slipping. It was possible the best course of action was to limit, even further, the amount of time he allowed himself to spend with Madara.

It clearly wasn’t doing any good.

He spent the sixteenth anniversary of Itama’s death out of the village, in a cave with Hikaku as rain poured around them after three days of hard travel, well on their way to the Hyuuga lands. Hashirama hadn’t wanted to let him go, but the Hyuuga were finally, finally, ready to come to peace terms and join the village and there was no one else with the status and temperament to go.

Tobirama welcomed the distraction, right up until the stab of turmoil, not his, made it through his aching soul as he watched the rain fall, and he panicked.

Stood, ready to fight, ready to run all the way back to Konoha himself as he exploded his sensor ability all the way behind him.

Found Madara.

Safe at home. Talking with Mito?

Whatever it was that had left his soulmate so upset, it wasn’t a physical threat.

Which meant it wasn’t any of his business. And that he was invading Madara’s privacy.

“Tobirama?” Hikaku asked, on his feet, his staff in hand, ready to fight.

“... It was nothing.”

It was just another heart throbbing in time with his own.

Don’t.

It didn’t get to be comforting. Focus. Focus on the mission.

He sat down, and spent the evening in a shared agony, and tried to make himself believe that it wasn’t such a quiet relief to not feel alone.

The thoughts were creeping back in. Thoughts of companionship. Thoughts of love. Hope.

Don’t.

He forced himself to refocus. There was plenty of work to be done.

He kept himself more than busy. So much so that the next moment he had any time to spare at all, Mito claimed it.

It was her birthday. So, he supposed it was her prerogative.

“Tobi!” Hashirama cheered when he opened the door and found his younger brother. “You came!”

Hashirama stepped aside to let him in, and even clapped Tobirama on the shoulder as he walked by.

“Mito invited me,” Tobirama said.

His brother pouted and whined. “You never come when I invite you!”

You never invite me.

“I like Mito better,” he said instead, and thought he showed great restraint when Hashirama almost knocked him over while he was taking off his sandals, by attempting what might have been a hug if not for the distinctly strangling nature of the motion.

“You’re so mean, Tobirama!”

“Idiot!” Tobirama barked, regaining his balance under his brother’s dead weight.

“Now, now husband, let Tobirama breathe.”

Mito came to the rescue, as Hashirama released him to face her. As always, his Anija only had eyes for her. As it should be.

“Tobirama,” she greeted with a warm smile. “Thank you for coming.”

He accepted her hug with more grace.

“Happy birthday.”

Smiling, she linked her arm in Hashiama’s as she thanked him. Tobirama wasn’t jealous of them anymore. He didn’t know if it was because he was a better person now, or just less of one.

“Well, look who decided to show up!”

Touka. Everything went better when Touka was here. He let her drag him away.

He hated these things. He was more than aware of how intimidating other people, even shinobi and clan heads, found his presence, with his bloodsoaked eyes and hands, closer to a ghost than a human. Even though he’d dressed for the occasion, left all his armor at home, he knew he stood out, and not in a good way.

Tobirama knew the moment that Madara arrived. He watched Mito greet him and wished he could do the same.

It only got worse when the pretty and fierce Hatake clan head came over and claimed all of Touka’s attention, even if Hikaku took her place, a quiet presence, but at least one he had learned to tolerate and didn’t ask stupid questions.

Tobirama decided he would say good evening to Mito and call it a night, but she insisted he and Hikaku join her and Hashirama.

As most conversations between adults who had had too much sake did, the conversation turned to soulmates, to Hikaku, who had yet to find his.

It was quite possibly the very last thing he wanted to hear about with Madara not ten feet from him, but he already felt buried so deep. It didn’t matter.

“You’re still young, Hikaku. I’m sure you’ll find your match before long,” Mito said. She was buzzed, and easy with her smiles. Tobirama was glad. She should be happy on her birthday.

“You’re a great young man! You’ll find them in no time!” Hashirama agreed loudly.

“If you say so Hokage-sama,” Hikaku agreed, bemused.

“No, no, none of that! I’m just Hashirama tonight,” he said, waving him off as he took another drink. “It’s just about being honest; with yourself and with your soulmate. Take Mito and me! Half a conversation and we just knew.”

Mito shared a startled glance with Tobirama, already seeing where this conversation would go as clearly as Tobirama himself did. She said, “Now, now, no need to bore Hikaku wi-“

Tobirama could not look away. The nature of grotesque things is that they do not allow you to look away, so Tobirama watched, helpless, waiting for his brother’s attention to turn on him.

“Now Tobi here,” there it was, “on the other hand, he’ll never find his soulmate, stuffy as he is. Honestly brother, you’re never going to find them with a face like that. They’ll think you’re made of stone. Nobody wants a statue for a soulmate.”

Then he laughed.

“Hashirama!” Mito hissed.

It was almost amazing that even after all of these years, his brother still knew exactly how to hurt him most.

“What? Wha- Tobi, I didn’t mean it like that!”

How, exactly, had he meant it then?

As was becoming more and more often the case, even with as inquisitive as Tobirama naturally was, he decided he didn’t want to know. Would rather let it slide then seek further clarification. Forgive and forget.

It was easier that way.

He downed his drink, relished the burn, and stood.

“You’re an idiot,” he told his brother, because he was, but Tobirama loved him anyways, woeful ability to put his foot in his mouth and all. He tried to make his tone show that.

At least now he had an excuse to leave.

Mito looked upset on his behalf, which was appreciated, but unnecessary. It was her birthday after all. He kissed her forehead and said, “Happy Birthday.”

And because he couldn’t help himself, he looked at Madara.

Who was watching him. Who had heard the whole thing. And said nothing.

Because why would he? It wasn’t as though Hashirama had said anything worse than what Madara himself thought.

Tobirama left. Walked out into the cold night air, and hiraishined home.

Landing in his bedroom, he stripped off the constricting overlayers down to the white undershirt and the black pants he’d worn under his hakama, just in case. Then he stood in a bedroom he barely used, by a bed he hadn’t slept in in days.

His head hurt. His eyes hurt. But he knew sleep would not come.

So instead, he went to his kitchen, opened a high cupboard, and took out the bottle of sake Touka had given him as a joke. He rarely drank, but the sake from the party earlier had burned and warmed and now was as good a time to give in to that warmth as any.

Just once.

But before he could open it-

Madara was on his porch. His sensor abilities honed in on instinct, but the man just stood there and Tobirama couldn’t.

Not again. Not tonight.

(How many times would he have to turn the man he loved away while bleeding? Why did he only ever come at times like this?)

“What do you want, Uchiha?” he said, wrenching the door open. He didn’t look at the other man, not really, but did take a vicious satisfaction at the way the other man took a step back. “Come to gloat?”

“No! Of course not!” Madara protested, but Tobirama was in no mood to hear it. He still, always, felt like he was being slowly crushed under a weight he couldn’t bear, but this, this, that Madara would even show up here, at his home just to rub salt in or whatever the hell he wanted, was too much.

He felt the facade he’d spent his whole life building want to crack, so he buried it with an anger, so like his father’s, that choked him.

“Then what? What could you possibly want?” he snarled, wounded enough to forget to be careful.

“I-“ Madara began, but halted, and Tobirama just-

He’d been patient enough for one night.

“What? Out with it then. I don’t have all night to sit here and watch you stammering like a simpering fo-“

“I’m your soulmate!”

No.

No.

After everything Tobirama had done, after all the ways he’d tried so hard to protect Madara from himself (himself from Madara when he found out Tobirama had robbed him of someone to love), Madara couldn’t know. He’d been so careful.

How long had Madara known?

How long hadn’t he told him?

Why hadn’t he told him?

(Tobiama knew why. Fate worse than death, I’m sure. Everything was breaking.)

A wall undermined. He felt himself crumble. Everything, every hurt in his life didn’t come close to this, to what he knew was coming.

No.

Please.

He took a step back, staggered, felt himself caving in and wanted to run. Wanted to close the door and hide, just for one second, until he could brace himself, reinforce, remind himself how to be stone, how to get up. Again.

Madara didn’t let him. Closed the distance between them to grab the door with more strength than Tobirama had, and kept him from closing it.

Your soulmate,” Madara bit out furiously, his eyes spinning red, enraged as they locked with Tobirama’s. “I am your soulmate. We are soulmates.”

He was angry, and Tobirama knew why, didn’t blame him, tried to pull himself together.

“You knew!”

Tobirama had. Had known. And had known Madara would hate him even more for it.

Tensing, Tobirama wished vaguely that he had his armor. It wouldn’t help him, not now, not for this, but he might not feel so flayed open, exposed, with it as he felt without it. Madara could see everything, knew now to look.

Don’t show weakness. Weakness just shows people where to aim.

Madara would know exactly where to hit. Tobirama had left himself completely open, vulnerable to attack. He tried to brace.

But the Uchiha took a step back, then another, letting go of Tobirama’s door as he retreated.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Madara said, sounding like he even almost believed it. Like the thought for one moment that Tobirama would believe it.

Stupid. Of course this would hurt. It already did. Hurt so much that Tobirama almost wanted to cry, felt his eyes welling in a way they hadn’t since he was a child, not since Kawarama.

He didn’t let the tears fall. Wouldn’t give the world, and especially not the man across from him, the satisfaction

Instead, he snorted his derisive disbelief. What was the point in pretending anymore?

“You’d better come in then,” he said, and turned, retreating to his dark and empty house.

Only then did he realized he was still holding the sake bottle. It was as good an excuse as any. He went to the kitchen and got down glasses, trying valiantly to put his attention on anything but the other man, his soulmate, coming further into his house, his space.

Tried to use the moment to pull himself together, to remind himself.

He could do this. He could make it through this. He would have to.

He handed Madara one of the glasses, and went to the living room. Madara followed, because of course he did. Tobirama waved him over to the couch while he sat at his desk, shoved up under a darkened window, overflowing with work that for once couldn’t demand even a scrap of his attention. All of that was owed to the man across from him.

It was a cold comfort, one Tobirama in no way deserved, that Madara’s own turmoil echoed in Tobirama’s chest. He took a burning sip of sake and tried to drown it out.

“So,” Tobirama began when it was clear that Madara wouldn’t. “What do you want?”

Because that was all that mattered. It didn’t matter what Tobirama wanted. Tobirama didn’t get to want things, have the things he wanted. He knew better.

But Madara, Tobirama knew him, had watched for years from a distance, watched how much the other man loved his family, how he kept his word, was kind, hardworking, strong and fearless, and Tobirama loved him, would tear down the stars if he asked.

Would do whatever Madara asked. Even let him go.

“Want? We’re soulmates,” Madara said, as if that answered anything.

Tobirama looked into his sake. He knew that. Madara knew that, had known that for who knows how long, and it hadn’t made an ounce of difference.

He took another drink, felt it steady him a little with the promise of oblivion later. He put down the glass.

“So?” Tobirama asked, because Madara hadn’t answered the question.

“So!” replied Madara, still not answering the question. It would have made Tobirama smile if not for the way his lungs felt filled with icy water and dread.

He didn’t let it show.

“So,” he drawled instead. “We’ve been soulmates for years. It doesn’t have to mean anything if you don’t want it to.”

“Wh- Of course it does!” Madara stood, splashing drops of his sake onto Tobirama’s hardwood floors.

“It didn’t matter before,” Tobirama countered, because he had to know. Had to know how long Madara had known.

“I didn’t know before,” Madara protested, which was- good, he supposed, but didn’t make it better. Nothing would.

“How long have you known?” the Uchiha asked, demanded, and Tobirama couldn’t look at him. He knew Madara wouldn’t forgive him, knew that if he brought this up from where he’d buried it, everything he’d ever had to hide would come up with it. He didn’t- but Madara had a right to know.

“Since before I met you,” he confessed. The secret bubbled up in his throat like a shard of glass, shedding in its fury at being so long suppressed.

It was, for once, almost matched by the echo of hurt from Madara that wormed its way into Tobirama’s own chest.

“How?”

“When I spied on you and Hashirama at the river. You were sparring and he caught you across the cheek. I almost fell out of the tree,” he said, and had to laugh, even if it felt like gears grinding in his soul.

“… Why didn’t you tell me?”

That, at least, Tobirama knew the answer to. It made him down what was left of his drink as he regurgitated words from years ago that still tore him apart.

“Fate worse than death, I’m sure.”

Tobirama couldn’t tell whose heart was breaking.

“You know I don’t think that,” Madara whispered, but it just made Tobirama laugh because of course he did.

“Don’t I?” the Senju said. “Not that I blame you, of course. No one wants a statue, a monster, for a soulmate after all.”

It was true. Tobirama was good at accepting hard truths. He thought it fitting that his soulmate would be the same, but he still felt he should apologize. Being his soulmate wasn’t a fate he’d wish on anyone, much less this man who was everything he’d eve-

He stopped that train of thought, tilted his empty glass towards Madara in a toast to everything that could have been but never would be and said, “Sorry to disappoint.”

There was a moment, brief, the eye of the storm, before Madara stood. Tobirama tensed, not knowing what Madara would do, whether he’d leave, or say something worse, or leave, but didn’t even have time to stand before Madara had crossed the meager space between them, the walls nearly shaking with the cry of rage and pain that came from the Uchiha’s mouth.

He was fast, faster than Tobirama, who didn’t have time to react before Madara pulled the glass out of his hand and sent it smashing into the wall, shards flying, catching the moonlight, but Madara’s mouth crashed into his before they could fall.

Tobirama couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, as Madara, his soulmate, his, entirely engulfed him, held Tobirama’s face in his hands, and didn’t let go. Tobirama couldn’t. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Madara hated him, had said so himself, but he- he was here, holding him, in every way that Tobirama had ever wanted him to, and-

The ice in his soul cracked, shattered, broken by a roaring flame that burst out of all of him, kindled by the man holding onto him like he was drowning as much as Tobirama was. Like he loved him.

The dam broke, and he had to hold Madara back, tangle around him and let himself be held, felt himself shake, but had to try.

If this was the only time he would have this, he didn’t want to regret a second of it. He stood, rising underneath his soulmate to meet him, match him, kiss him back. He wanted everything, and in this moment, for the first time, maybe the only time in his life, Madara seemed to want the same exact thing and give it to him.

It quickly became too much. Every wall he had to protect himself was crumbling and letting tears, actual tears, fall down his face, and ruin this as sobs broke loose against Madara’s lips.

It hurt.

But it was okay, because Madara didn’t let him go, instead took his face and let him hide in his shoulder so he didn’t have to even try and pretend he was okay. Let him lean on Madara, steady and strong, as Tobirama just let go for once. Of everything.

He felt Madara whisper into his hair with a voice that shook in time with the arms around him.

“I have always, always loved you. There is no part of you that I don’t love. You’re not a monster. You’re the most human person I know.”

And it-

It just wasn’t possible, but Madara meant it.

He didn’t. He couldn’t. There weren’t any words to describe all the ways that, just that, those few words, managed to break down every horrible truth Tobirama knew about himself, scorging salt scraping through festering wounds he’d carried since childhood, finally cleaning them out of the poison they’d left.

The foundations he’d built himself on fell out, but it was alright. Madara, meant for him, was there to catch him.

“You-“ Tobirama began, thinking he should deny it but he couldn’t let go. Clung as hard as he could to the Uchiha that he’d wanted to hold for so long.

“I love you,” Madara interrupted him. “There is nothing about you that I would change.”

“You don’t know that. I’m not...“

Worth this. Worth you. Just a soldier. Just a monster.

It felt so unspeakably good to hear Madara deny it with gentle, loving hands running over his hair.

“You’re my soulmate. That means you’re enough just as you are.”

And Tobirama. Tobirama just let himself cry.

But this wasn’t what he’d pictured. Wasn’t what he’d imagined, and quickly, the shame of the breakdown came back. The first time Madara had kissed him, after over a decade of wanting and waiting and wishing, and Tobirama had cried. Like a child. It made him pull back, try and pull himself together.

Madara didn’t let him go far. Cradled his face in calloused hands and wiped away the tears that he was so ashamed of, but he didn’t look disappointed. Far from it, he looked in love as he rested their foreheads together and looked Tobirama dead in the eye and smiled.

“I think I love you too,” Tobirama whispered, honestly confessed.

Madara didn’t deny him, didn’t deny the truth of it, or the fact that Tobirama could love at all, just kissed him again.

It was everything he ever wanted, and was over too soon.

In its place came a headache and a fatigue that would not be shaken. He didn’t know if it was the rice wine or the three-day mission he’d returned from this morning, or just the sheer shakiness of the weight of ten years worth of pretending leaving him, but all of a sudden his bones hurt.

He could feel it, subtly ripple through Madara, and grimaced.

That wasn’t fair at all. He pulled back, and tried to push the pain down.

“My apologies,” Tobirama said. “It’s been a long few days.”

He turned to leave, to go wash his face or get some water or-

But Madara’s hand on his arm stopped him.

Tobirama looked back, and paused.

Whatever Madara wanted, no matter how tired he was, Tobirama would try. He just-, didn’t want him to go.

It only took one look at his face for Madara to grimace, and Tobirama wasn’t used to being read so easily, wasn’t sure he knew what to do with it, but Madara didn’t make it hard. Didn’t make it hurt.

Instead, he just took Tobirama’s hand and said, “It’s okay. Just, here,” as he led Tobirama the few feet over to his couch. Without dropping his hand, Madara sat and looked up expectantly.

Tobirama felt his face smooth out, walls rise back up as uncertainty crept in. He wasn’t sure what Madara wanted from him, wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He wasn’t-

But Madara just smiled again, like the sunrise over the sea.

“I’ve been waiting to hold you for nearly twenty years. Please?” Madara said, softly, pleading, and it broke Tobirama’s heart a little to see him so unsure.

(Not even accounting for the fact that Madara had been waiting, waiting. For him.

Tobirama wished he’d known, or could have ever guessed.)

So, Tobirama let himself be pulled down into his soulmate’s arms, let Madara cradle and kiss him, bury his face in Tobirama’s hair and breathe him in until sleep slipped up to claim them both.

It was, without a doubt, the best night’s sleep he had in years. It was only slightly beaten out by the feeling of waking up to Madara’s arms still wrapped around him, the way they tightened as Tobirama tried to stand, as though they couldn’t bare to let him go.

The foriegn feeling of his heart swelling and wanting to burst out of his chest was becoming more and more potent and familiar. It grew even worse (better) when Madara nuzzled his face between Tobirama’s shoulder blades.

Still, he felt better this morning then he had in years, maybe ever. Felt good enough to tease.

“You have to let me go eventually,” he said, and felt Madara smile against his back as the arms around him tightened.

He didn’t let him up though, just burrowed further into Tobirama’s back.

Well. That was somewhat unexpected. Still, Tobirama had spent enough time around clingy children to know to nip that kind of behavior in the bud.

“Madara,” he said, letting the warning creep into his voice. “Stop. You’re being ridiculous.”

Evidently, Madara disagreed.

“You love it,” he said, and Tobirama’s heart felt fit to burst, but he kept that inside, barely avoided shivering as Madara planted a kiss to his spine.

“If by love it you mean feel like I’m trapped in a furnace by a menace trying to suffocate me, then yes. I love it,” Tobirama deadpanned, though he couldn’t keep the smile off his face. It was okay. Madara couldn’t see it.

(Wouldn’t tell, even if he had, Tobirama was learning.)

Madara let him go, but that was okay. Tobirama knew he’d be welcomed back.

And in between, he got to know, really know the man he was meant to be in love with.

He had thought himself in love with Madara for years filled with stolen glances and wishful thinking but this. This. This was so much better. Now he got to know. Got to see and find out for himself.

Got to see Madara smile. At him for once.

Got to see Madara waiting when Tobirama came out of mediation to the other man, calm and warm like embers as he kissed him. Got to watch him fail miserably at cooking rice. Watch his head hit his desk in frustration with the tedium of necessary bureaucracy. See how he followed Tobirama home meekly in the early hours of the morning, long after the rest of the village had gone to sleep.

Watch him join Tobirama at his shrine to his brothers and pray with him.

Got to go to work with what had passed a secret between them. It was the first secret he’d shared with another without fear, fitting that it should be between him and Madara, but necessary because he wanted to keep this, them, just for the two of them, just for a little while. Got to see Madara do what he'd asked because he'd asked it, even if he pulled Tobirama aside whenever no one was around to whisper that he loved him. Come home with him well after every one else had called it quits, not irritated in the slightest at Tobirama’s ceaseless work ethic, but fully ready to reward him when he came home to rest.

Got to watch in the early morning light, bemused, as the Uchiha tried to wrench a brush through his long hair, annoyed about something Izuna had done earlier that week, not noticing how hard he was yanking in his irritation. Got to pull the brush from his hand, and comb it out himself until Madara distracted him with perfectly demanding hands and love in his eyes.

Got to see how it felt to have hands rub at muscles he didn’t have to admit were sore. Feel Madara run a hand through his hair and lay his lips on Tobirama’s throbbing temples as he pulled him away from his work. Learn what it felt like to let him, let himself be pulled away from a task unfinished and not mind.

Got to see him run through the hospital doors, got to feel Madara haul him up and hold him while his brother put Hikaku back together in the other room. Got to hear Madara say that it would be okay, how worried he was (for Tobirama), how much he loved him, even though he had fucked up and failed.

Got to watch him wangle his recalcitrant clan into a police force that would protect and serve the village they both loved. Watched him work right next to Tobirama to build a legacy that might last long after they both went to the Pure Lands (together? He hoped so).

Tobirama liked the quiet breathing room (healing) that keeping their bond just between them afforded him. Liked that Madara wanted to shout it from the rooftops, but was willing to wait for him to be ready without complaint. Loved it.

But there were things that made even this hard, hard in the way that things had to be, to be worthwhile.

Had to see Madara wake in a cold sweat from nightmares like Tobirama had never had to suffer, see how he clung to Tobirama. Nightmares like Itama used to have. These left him just as helpless.

Had to hear all about Madara and Hashirama’s disagreements over how to run the village. Most of the time, the rants from his soulmate were funny. Made him laugh like he hadn’t in years, but sometimes he would stray towards mean in a way that was familiar, that Tobirama saw in himself and would feel conflicted, pulled between the man he loved and his brother, who he owed more than loyalty, since his unceasing belief that peace was possible, even when Tobirama had had none, had let him have this. Madara would notice though, sigh, and change the subject.

Tobirama loved him.

But he had to see the way he flinched when Tobirama would say, casually, things about himself he’d always assumed true.

“I don’t like it when you’re cruel to my soulmate,” Madara said, unmovable.

“But-”

“No.” A kiss, hands on his face. Cradled. “There is nothing about you I would change.”

So, Tobirama would try to be better about what he thought about himself.

In return, Madara tried to be better about the one thing that really gave Tobirama pause. He didn’t like it when Madara hit Izuna, even in jest. Even just to physically throw the laughing man out of his office, or into a convenient lake. Even when Izuna didn’t mind. It wasn’t-

He recognized that their relationship was different from the one he’d been made to have with his brothers, where they’d had to hurt each other, but... It made him flinch.

And Madara tried to be better. Whenever he got the urge, an angry hum under Tobirama’s skin, Madara began to turn to Tobirama instead, refocus. Redirect.

It wasn’t necessary, but it was… nice. Possibly the nicest thing anyone had ever done for him.

Tobirama loved him. This absolute hurricane of a man.

But he knew they had to tell people eventually. They started with their family.

Mito knew, but she cried all the same.

Touka actually hugged him, even if she made him swear to never tell.

Izuna had laughed. Which hurt more than he wanted to admit. For once, he didn’t protest when Madara reached across and whacked Izuna for it.

The only one who mattered and still didn’t know was Hashirama.

He didn’t want Madara to come with him to tell his Anija. It wasn’t that he feared Hashirama’s reaction exactly. He was reasonably sure Hashirama would be… happy, he supposed. But he’d be surprised. And that would hurt, might hurt so bad he couldn’t hide it, and he wasn’t sure he wanted his soulmate to know just how easily wounded he was yet. How much he let another’s opinion bother him, even if it was his older brother’s.

He was still trying to get used to the fact that there was someone he couldn’t fool.

“Wh-really? You and Madara?”

Tobirama nodded.

Leaning back in his chair, Hashirama looked like he’d been poleaxed.

“But I thought he hated you?”

Tobirama didn’t show the way in which the genuine confusion flew straight through his carefully constructed walls. He knew that, knew that, had heard Madara say it before, but new evidence required new conclusions. He kept his face blank as he reached hard for that evidence, for Madara kissing him in the morning, wrapping arms around him at night, whispering that he loved him, clung to those images as he tilted his head at his brother and just said, “Apparently not.”

“Of course not! I just, I’m surprised. I don’t-”

“It’s fine, Anija. I know how he used to feel. He says he’s moved passed it.”

“He better have!” Hashirama said as he stood. Grinning wildly, he took a full step towards Tobirama, who fought the desire to take a step back as his personal space was invaded.

To his credit, Hashirama seemed to sense it, seemed to deflate for just a moment, before summoning up a smile so bright it made Tobirama almost want to reply in kind.

“And you? Do you like him?”

Tobirama didn’t even need to think about it. He’d liked Madara since the moment he’d met him, liked him since the second he felt the phantom blow on his cheek and saw the way Madara had tossed Hashirama in the river in revenge. Saw him laugh. Saw him laugh with Tobirama’s only remaining brother. Saw the way he made Hashirama laugh in return.

Then had loved him for years after that, from so far away. Now, right next to Madara, held by him, it was even better.

Not that he would tell Hashirama that.

Instead, he simply nodded.

“Good, tha-, that’s good. Just be careful, okay? Because I know Madara puts up a brave front, but he bruises easily,” he said, and then muttered “... especially his ego…”

But Tobirama had stopped listening, just tilted his head to better see his brother, felt his eyebrows pinch together.

He knew Madara was easily wounded. Could feel, intimately, how sometimes the things he said hurt the other man, no matter how hard he tried to avoid it, but he was always careful.

“I know that, Anija. Obviously.”

“Oh! Oh, right. Of course you do, right. I just, I’ve wanted you to be friends for so long, it’s just a little surreal.”

Wanted it more than Tobirama?

“I just don’t want either of you to get hurt. He’s not who I would have pictured would match you.”

Tobirama felt his teeth clench. Madara was proud, hot headed, but he was kind as well, loving, and Tobirama knew which of those traits Hashirama had not been expecting in Tobirama’s soulmate. Which hadn’t been present in their father’s match. Which one Hashirama thought missing in Tobirama, thought Tobirama didn’t deserve.

And Hashirama had never cared if Tobirama got hurt before. Not in over twenty years, had watched it happen for those years. Why would he start now? Clearly, he meant he didn’t want Madara to get hurt.

As if Tobirama would ever hurt him.

(But he would. Almost had. Had almost killed Madara’s brother. Because he could. Hashirama was right to be worried. Tobirama didn’t even know what it was he said sometimes to make the Uchiha’s rage flare and chest hurt. He didn’t mean it, didn’t mean to. Maybe Hashirama was right to be afraid, the way his eyes said he was.

Maybe he wasn’t meant for this.)

And that hurt. The doubt. It hurt so much it actually made him angry.

“I know you think me like our father, but despite what you seem to think, I am capable of loving my own soulmate and even maybe being loved in return. You don’t need to lectu-”

“Wh- I didn’t say that! I know you aren’t - are - I’m jus-”

“What, Anija, what are you trying to say? Because Madara loves me and that should be enough for you!”

“Tobirama, stop!”

And Tobirama, ever the obedient soldier, did. Clamped his teeth closed and tried to focus on breathing, and not the pain and phantom panic he felt coloring the air in his lungs.

Back across the village, Madara was worried about him. It made him want to smile and cry at the same time, even as he felt woefully incapable of either.

“None of this is coming out right.”

Tobirama suddenly felt himself refocus on his brother, found him smiling sadly at him, and felt himself tense. His arms crossed without his permission, and he squeezed his own forearms hard enough to hurt, but Hashirama closed the space between them anyways, and reached for him.

Hashirama had never really held him before. It had always been the other way around, but his Anija reached up and pulled Tobirama’s head down onto his shoulder, whispered into his hair.

“I’m so happy for you. Madara is a good man. I’m sure Kawarama and Itama would approve.”

Then he let him go. Let him run. The pain of that so sharp in his breast. Tobirama didn’t know if he was grateful or not, but there was only one place he really wanted to be. One person he really wanted to see.

It wasn’t until he was standing outside Madara’s door, three familiar chakra signatures inside, that he remembered all at once, the last time he stood here.

What he’d heard.

What he had to believe wasn’t true anymore, but just talking with Hashirama had brought it all up to the surface again.

He couldn’t stop his hand from shaking as he knocked.

Just in case. He didn’t want to interrupt them. Again.

He shouldn’t have worried.

Madara held him, laid warm hands on his back and buried kisses in his hair.

Took him home.

Gave him the strength to admit his own worst fears, whispered in the dark as he heard Madara’s heartbeat under his ear, felt the heat of him so near.

“Every time he looks at me, he sees our father. Thinks me a monster like he was.”

The arm around him tightened. Held him closer, as though actually afraid to lose him.

“I hated him.”

Madara didn’t say anything, didn’t laden any judgement against him for hating the man who gave him life. Instead, Madara gently soothed the hand up his back to cradle his head, brought his other arm around, brought him up until Tobirama’s head was just inches above where Madara’s rested on the pillow below.

He said the words again, ones Tobirama was still trying to believe.

“There is nothing about you I would change.”

Everything in him wanted to deny it, but he knew that Madara thought it was true and wouldn’t be swayed by Tobirama’s opinion on it. He was wonderful that way, so finally, Tobirama closed his eyes and nodded.

He was still surprised when Madara kissed him. When he held him closer, close enough to share the same air, the same moment in time when everything else became unimportant but the way Madara’s hand lit an inferno inside him. Melted the ice that had churned inside him for years. Made him rise up and writhe as Madara touched every part of him without fear, clung to Tobirama’s pale, scared self and didn’t let go. Rose and fell with him until it all became almost too much, too good, with clashing teeth shuddered breaths and they fell apart in each others’ arms.

Until, with quiet hands and soft touches, Madara put him back together.

Later, while Madara was marking his scars with gentle fingers, mapping out all of Tobirama's hurts with calloused hands, he found the one Izuna had left in his side, almost two years ago.

“How did it happen?” he asked.

Tobirama felt himself go cold, felt the mask he’d spent years perfecting slide onto his face. He rolled over, facing Madara, who never seemed to see his faults these days, and knew it was time.

Time to be honest. Time to show Madara a truth he’d known and forgotten. Tobirama was a monster. He didn’t deserve this, not for the months that he’d had it, not at all, ever.

He couldn’t hide it forever. Tobirama was many things, but not a coward.

If reminding Madara of that fact lost Tobirama this, well… better now. Before it was too late (it was already too late).

“I was going to kill him,” Tobirama confessed, but Madara just looked confused. Like he didn’t know what Tobirama meant, so he swallowed and said, “Izuna. That day.”

He both saw and felt the horror that echoed from Madara as the dots connected and he couldn’t look. Couldn’t see. Felt himself seize with the familiar self-loathing that had haunted him since childhood, and sat up, rolled away, so he wouldn’t have to look and see it reflected back at him on a face he adored.

Why had he thought he could survive this?

He tried desperately to explain, “I should have. I knew he would kill me if I didn’t, but I-” Even now the excuses felt hollow. “Everything I’d ever been taught and told, told me what my duty was. But I-“

What kind of monster would kill his soulmate’s brother in cold blood?

The same kind that could stand over his own brother’s grave unable to grieve.

“I couldn’t do that to you. Only monsters hurt their soulmate and you- I know what I am, but I just wanted-” he felt his words catch in his throat and hid his face in his hands, mask gone as tears fell, and begged, please, “I’m sorry. I’m not-”

He felt his soulmate sit up, and stopped (breathing, thinking, everything), waited for judgement. Waited for the blow, one he wouldn’t know how to stand up after, to fall and take all of this from him.

But Madara didn’t do that. Tobirama felt his lover’s arms close around him, pulling him back into the warmth of the other’s chest as Madara put his weight on him, enfolding him in the other man’s presence, solid, unmoving, safe.

“There is nothing,” Madara kissed his temple, “about you,” then his neck, “that I would change.”

Then he moved down, and kissed the scar where it ended behind Tobirama’s back, a benediction, forgiveness, acceptance that Tobirama didn’t feel like he’d earned, but was given anyways as Madara then pulled him back towards the bed. Laid Tobirama down and came to hover above him.

The eyes burned, not with the contempt that Tobirama always felt from everyone else, but with love. From the only person who’s opinion mattered now anyways.

“You’re here,” Madara said and kissed him.

“You’re mine,” he kissed him again.

“And I have never been more grateful for anything in my life.”

Gods Tobirama loved him. Loved that Madara loved him. Loved it so much it hurt, but in the best way.

Because maybe Tobirama was, in some terrifying ways, like his father. Maybe he would never be like his brothers, any of them. Maybe his childhood, brutal as it had been, had shaped him into who he was. What he was.

And maybe, laying here in his soulmate’s arms, he could believe that that was okay. Madara loved him anyways.

And that was enough.