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Anchor Up to Me, Love

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Mito’s wedding day was easily one of the happiest days of her life. From the ceremony in the temple on the cliffs above the sea, to the reception on the beach below, all the lights in the Land of Whirlpools felt like they were shining just for her.

Hashirama, her husband, her soulmate, was the brightest light of all, like sunrise over the sea.

He made it a little easier to pack up everything she wanted to keep from home to follow him half-way across the world. Not easy, because she loved her home by the sea, didn’t know how she’d sleep without the sound of the waves, how she’d wake without the cries of the gulls, but thought it would be easier with the man she loved by her side, even after only knowing him for three months.

Her father would have preferred a longer engagement. She would have too, but Hashirama was wonderful, and kind, and would have left his family behind for her, which is why she was willing to leave hers behind for him.

The Senju were at war. They needed their clan head.

Dearly, if the more and more frequent letters from Hashirama’s brother were any indication. He didn’t often let her see how much he worried for the family he’d left behind, but she saw all the same.

So, they’d rushed, and she refused to regret it, especially with how utterly grateful he seemed for it. It was worth it.

And besides. She was sure, more sure than she’d ever been of anything in her life, that she loved him. Had loved him since she was young and he was young and hurting more than she ever did. The pains he’d felt echoed in her nightmares, and sometimes his pain was so much that she worried she’d never get to meet him.

Now that she had, she realized she needn’t have worried. Hashirama was indomitable. He could see the worst in the world and smile, and she loved him so deeply already.

Still, she was relieved when her best friend and favorite cousin, Satsu, offered to come with her to the Senju Compound to help her settle in. In her new home, lacking familiar faces and with so much additional responsibility, she was glad she would have someone she knew by her side.

The Senju Compound was beautiful, a sprawling settlement that rose up and wove among the trees. Mito’s first thought upon seeing it was how she might be happy here, surrounded by this new ocean of green towering giants. 

Hashirama’s clan seemed everything she’d hoped they’d be and more. Shinobi broke from their duty to give congratulations, people waved, called to them in the streets as they the group made their way to the main house, all the way up and at the center of everything.

There, she met the Elders Council, waiting to meet them. Hashirama introduced them all, a series of wizened faces and numerous names she tried to commit to memory.

“Where’s Tobirama?” her husband asked when they’d finally finished, and it was the first time that she noticed his brother, the only member of his immediate family, and the only one he’d ever really mentioned, wasn’t present.

One of the elders (Noriko, Hashirama’s second cousin on his father’s side, she reminded herself) smiled blandly.

“He is at the border, on patrol. Word of your absence has reached our enemies, so he thought it best to be vigilant.”

That was fair. Logical. Her soulmate’s fearsome reputation was known across the world. It made sense that his embattled clan relied on it, on him, to ward off their rivals, and with him a country away…

But Mito would be lying if she said she wasn’t disappointed. She could tell Hashirama was as well, from the quiet pang that echoed through her own chest.

“He should be here,” Hashirama said, but received no answer. It was clear his brother wasn’t here, and no one had anything else to say on the matter.

Mustering a smile, Mito looked at her husband, felt him orient himself (his whole world) towards her and said, “It’s alright, I can meet him later. Besides, it’s not as if I’m going anywhere.”

She was relieved when the tightness in her (his) chest eased and his smile returned.

Well into that night, her first night in her new home, in her new bed, she woke when Hashirama’s arms left her.

“Hashirama?” she questioned.

“It’s okay, it’s just Tobirama. Go back to sleep.”

And then he slipped out of bed and left the room.

… Clearly, they still had some learning to do about one another if he thought she would let him leave her behind.

There was only one member of Hashirama’s family that mattered to him, beyond his duties as a clan head to cherish all members equally, and that was his younger brother. She was eager to meet the man, and unwilling to let this golden opportunity pass her by. To have their first meeting unobserved, away from the ever-present, obviously judgmental elders.

She got up, slipped on a robe over her silk pajamas, and followed him out into the unfamiliar maze that was her new home. Luckily, he didn’t go far, just back to the genkan, but she heard them long before she entered the room.

“-alright? You were gone a long time.”

A low voice answered her husband. “Everything was fine, Anija.”

“Then why weren’t you here? Mito was disappointed.”

“I-”

Mito turned the corner, perfectly able to speak for herself, thank you, but came up short at the sight she found. When Hashirama spoke about his brother, she had expected…

Not this. Maybe someone like her husband, or at least someone who looked like him, shared his easy smile, and laughing eyes.

This man looked nothing like Hashirama.  An albino, with white hair and a face lined with red. His face was stone, and his eyes were like blood when they locked on hers.

Tobirama looked like a ghost in her hallway.

“Anija,” Tobirama said, nodding to her.

Hashirama looked unsurprised to see that she hadn’t listened to him, delighted even. He held out his hand to her and smiled, bright and clear.

“Mito! Come meet my brother.”

The brother said nothing, a hand on the sword at his side, not threatening, exactly, just resting, as if that was where his hand always laid. His eyes, however, were coolly assessing in a way she wasn’t sure she liked.

But Hashirama looked elated.

“Tobi, this is Mito. She’s my soulmate,” he said, like it was the best thing ever. Like it was a miracle.

(Maybe it was.)

“I see that, Anija,” Tobirama said, sounding bemused? Even if his face gave nothing away. He looked at her again and seemed to deflate a bit, unwind as if the bolts holding him tightly together had loosened for just a moment as he bowed his head. “Mito-sama. I’m honored to meet you.”

The address took her aback.

That wouldn’t do. Even if she’d been startled, even if he wasn’t what she was expecting (and shame on her for having any expectations. A shinobi should know better), they were family now.

“Just Mito is fine. It’s nice to meet you.”

Tobirama nodded, and agreed, “Mito, then. Please call me Tobirama.”

She nodded back, feeling a little helpless as an awkward silence descended between them, but Hashirama, she was learning, didn’t know the meaning of the word awkward.

“Are you turning in for the night, Tobirama?” Hashirama asked.

“No,” said Tobirama, shaking his head. “I still have things to do.”

“Oh,” Hashiama said, disappointed. “Do you need any help?”

Mito was confused. It was nearly three in the morning, and hadn’t he just gotten back from a patrol?

But the man just shook his head again. “No, Anija. I’ll handle it. You should head back to bed.”

Hashirama hesitated, but gave way, stepping aside to let his brother by. Mito looked up at him, surprised, somehow, that he didn’t insist, but then, looking at Tobirama, she didn’t know if she’d argue with him either.

Tobirama ghosted by them, soundless, without another word. Mito watched him go, watched him walk down the hall, and disappear through a door to the left, presumably his room.

“Sorry about him,” Hashirama said.

She looked up to him with furrowed brow, confused.

“He’s happy you’re here, I promise. He’s just not good with strangers. He’ll come around,” he reassured her. And then he smiled at her, bright enough that she believed it.

Over a week later, and no sign of Tobirama since that night, she wasn’t so sure.

She hadn’t honestly noticed his conspicuous absence at first. She spent nearly every moment with Hashirama, laughing, learning how much she loved him. He would read with her, eat with her, play his shakuhachi flute for her while she worked on her most intricate seals, played go with Satsu while Mito played on his step-mother’s old koto. He took her to walk through the gardens, growing any and all kinds of floral delights for her at her slightest whim. He took her to see the rest of the compound, introducing her to his people as they went out to lunch, bought her gifts from the artisans, and made her familiar with everyone and everything that called the Senju Compound their home.

He made her feel like these people were hers too.

They were easily some of the happiest days of her life.

But, it felt strange somehow?

Hashirama was a clan head. Mito was the daughter of a clan head, the Fire Daimyo’s niece. Never had she gone so long with so little to do. If anything, her work load should have doubled, not disappeared entirely.

She asked Hashirama about it one morning, her twelfth day of leisure, as she wrapped her hair up into her double buns and pinned it in place with her bronze kanzashi hair sticks.

“Hm?” he asked, looking up from the book he was reading on the bed. “Oh, Tobirama’s handling everything.”

“…What?” she didn’t realize...

“Yep. He’s taking care of everything for now,” he smiled up at her. It still left her breathless, but she focused. “Said it was a wedding present.”

Oh. She turned back to the mirror and blinked, confused. Only now did it dawn on her that she hadn’t seen the younger Senju since that night in the hallway. She had assumed he was just…

Well, whatever she had assumed, it wasn’t this.

“Did he say for how long?” she asked as she clipped back her bangs.

“Nope, just as long as you needed to get settled here.”

That was… kind, she supposed, generous, but, and she wasn’t sure why, but it left her feeling indignant. She was a grown woman, a seal master, and one of the best kunoichi of her generation. She didn’t need to be coddled like a child.

It wouldn’t do. She hadn’t worn her bronze crown, the most blatant sign of her prestige among her people, since the day she had arrived, but now felt like a good time to put it back where it belonged.

“Well,” she said and stood, pinning her seals against deception and ill-intentions onto her buns. She slid her crown on as a final touch, fastening it securely. “I am more than settled now.”

“Wha-Mito? Are you sure?”

She sent him a blank look, and arched an eyebrow in warning. He meeped, and ducked down to cower as though she terrified him. She resolutely didn’t let it make her smile.

“I’m sure you’re behind on your training at the very least. Why don’t you go do that while I find Tobirama?” she suggested, not a question.

“Um, Mito, maybe I should go talk to Tobi…”

It was either the look on her face or the spike in her killer intent made him trail off. Never let it be said that her husband was a stupid man. Endearingly childlike at times, but not stupid in the least.

“I am more than capable of speaking with my brother-in-law, thank you.”

This turned out to be easier said than done, apparently, as Tobirama had moved out of the main house without anyone (including her husband) telling her. It seemed like something she should know, considering it was her house he’d left.

(She hadn’t even noticed.)

Instead, she heard it from Satsu, who just shrugged as she told Mito, “He said he didn’t want to intrude. He even helped me move some of your things into his old room.”

Which explained why the room she was looking into, the only one she had seen her brother-in-law enter, was filled with her things, but didn’t explain anything else.

“He didn’t need to do that. This is his home,” Mito asserted to Satsu, who just scowled and shrugged hard enough for her shoulder length orange hair to rustle.

“He insisted,” Satsu said, icy. Her cousin never did like losing an argument.

“Well, I’ll just have to go find him,” she said, her tone sharp enough to make Satsu smirk a little.

“Woe to him, then,” said Satsu, hoisting the basket of laundry she was clearly on her way to run. “Do you want me to come with you?” she asked, sounding dubious but willing.

But, despite already at her chores, Satsu wasn’t dressed yet, which made Mito feel fond. Since they were children, Satsu had never been at her best in the mornings, which was shown by the way she yawned (and in that she was intending to do her laundry in her nightclothes).  Thankfully, the Senju lands were not as provincial as Mito had quietly feared, and the main house had its own washing machine that glimmered, brand new from the Land of Lightning. 

Still, she didn’t want to wait for her cousin to get ready. Chores were one thing, but meeting the formidable Tobirama required one’s wits, or so she presumed. And Mito was feeling pressed for time.

“No, that’s alright. I’m sure it will only take a moment,” she replied with a sharp smile of her own.

Now, if only she could find him.

It was her first time out and about in the Senju Compound without Hashirama at her side, but she didn’t let it give her much pause. This was her home. These were her people. She had no reason to be afraid.

Still, the trip proved educational.

For one thing, Tobirama was apparently not someone often sought out, given the incredulous looks she got when she asked after him.

“Can any of you tell me where to find Tobirama?” she started demanding, already tired of the politely inquisitive vacancy she’d come to expect of people confronted with the question.

“Huh, Tobirama-sama? Is everything alright?” one of the third group she’d asked answered. She hadn’t met any of them before, but this one was young, and endearing, or he would have been if Mito wasn’t getting more and more annoyed with every dead end she met. The last two groups she’d talked to had admitted after long and pointless conversations that they didn’t even know where Tobirama was. How was it possible that the man was running the clan could be so hard to find?

“Yes, I would just like to speak with him.”

“Oh, wel-“

But another man, taller, older with a handsome face that oozed arrogance interrupted him with a scoff.

“Good luck with that,” he said, and she looked at him, confused. “People don’t talk with Tobirama. They speak, and then he bites their head off.”

“If you’re lucky,” another added.

“Guy’s an asshole,” the handsome one reitterated, and she couldn’t, for the life of her, understand why they weren’t answering her actual question.

She was about to make her opinion plain, no one disrespected her family, when someone else cut in.

“Ugo-san, don’t you have something better to do?” a woman’s voice cracked across the street, “Wouldn’t want Tobirama to catch you slacking.”

“Touka-taichou,” the youngest (and so far, the only tolerable) one cried as they all tensed and turned to face the woman.

Mito found her tall, in all black and grey Senju armor, with her hair tied up in a high bun and her lips painted like blood. She carried a wicked naginata that she leaned on as she grinned.

She looked terrifying. Mito liked her immediately.

“Well?” Touka demanded. “You’re supposed to be on guard duty.”

“We were on our way,” the one Touka called Ugo-san, Mito would remember, sneered. “Why? You gonna tattle to your precious cousin?”

Touka smiled even wider, white teeth breaking out from under her dark lips, bloodthirsty, and said, “How naive of you to think he hasn’t already noticed your absence.”

The young one squeaked and stammered out, “We were just going to take Mito-sama to Tobirama-sama. She wanted to see him.”

“Were you now? Well, since you clearly have other things to do, I’ll take her.”

It was a testament to the tremendous spike of killing intent that the others vanished without another word.

“Dicks,” Touka spat out as she stood up straight.

Yes. Mito liked her.

“I’m Mito,” she said.

Touka met her eye and offered hand with a firm grip.

Mito wondered why she hadn’t met Touka earlier when she’d been introduced to her husband’s clan, but it didn’t really matter that she hadn’t. She’d met her now.

It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Especially as Touka actually did know where to find Tobirama. At his house, apparently, his new one.

“He’s got so much paperwork in there, I’m surprised he hasn’t drowned in it,” Touka said as she led her towards the outskirts of the compound, rolling her eyes. Mito maybe felt a little guilty, knowing how much of it she’d likely contributed to by occupying the clan head’s attention, so she changed the subject.

“What happened between Ugo, was it?” Mito asked, and continued at Touka’s nod, “and Tobirama.”

There was a lot of animosity between the two for it to boil over at strangers.

Touka just rolled her eyes. “Tobirama beat him in a spar when they were kids, and Ugo’s ego has never gotten over being a fourteen year old beaten by a six year old. He’s just lucky Tobirama’s too nice to take offense.”

Which didn’t sound at all like the man she’d been hearing about all morning, like the one she met in her hallway over a week ago.

“‘Nice’ doesn’t seem like a word most apply to Tobirama,” Mito said, probing.

Touka side-eyed her, reading through the comment to the question underneath and snorted. “Don’t let him fool you. Tobirama doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

She seemed very sure, and she was the most reasonable person Mito had met all day, so Mito filed her assertion away as they approached a small, two story house on the edge of the compound.

Touka went right in, calling out, “Tobirama! Get down here. You have a guest.”

Mito followed, slipping off her shoes, taking in the empty entryway and hallway that connected it to the rest of the house. The walls were bereft of the usual accouterments.

Tobirama was there when she looked up. She nearly jumped. Once again, he hadn’t made a sound.

“Touka,” he greeted, still as expressionless as always, even in the face of Touka’s genuine smile, before turning to Mito. “Mito-sama.”

“Just Mito, Tobirama,” she reminded him, getting her bearings and offering him a smile.

“I’m going to take off, okay Tobirama? My patrol leaves in half an hour,” said Touka, waiting for his nod before turning to Mito. “Mito-sama. It was nice to meet you.”

“Likewise. And please, just Mito.”

Touka smiled, a real one this time, and took her naginata and left Mito alone with her brother-in-law.

When she turned back to him, he was still looking at her, waiting, as though she were something strange. But Mito was good at this game. She smiled, and waited as well, making him take the first move. For politeness’s sake. She would wait here all day.

“Would you like to come in?” he finally asked, as though she were not already in his hallway.

“I would, thank you,” she replied.

He led her deeper into his home. It was unremarkable. There were no pictures on the walls of the hallway that led to a small kitchen, with a nook for a table and nothing out of place, not even a dirty dish in the sink. The only thing that could have clued her in to the fact that someone actually lived here was the smell, faint and clashing, of aloewood and ginger lily. It wasn’t a particularly pleasant combination, but she didn’t mention it as Tobirama went through the motions of making them tea, not the nice brew Hashirama spent five minutes making for her, but the instant kind she might, honestly, prefer, she thought as she sipped it.

He sat down in the other chair. She noticed that even here, in his home, he was in his armor. She wondered if he ever took it off.

“To what do I owe this visit, Mito?” he asked.

“I noticed you moved out of the main house when I arrived. Can I ask why?” she asked, setting down her tea cup. Best to start with the least important, but most curious question first.

He blinked at her, and took a full moment before answering.

“The Elders thought it proper if I move out. They endeavor that you should be made as comfortable as possible.”

Mito’s brow furrowed in irritation. “The Elders do not dictate who is welcome in my home,” she stated this fact as though it should have been obvious. Because it clearly hadn’t been.

She would remedy that.

“No,” he agreed easily enough, “but I was moved by their wisdom. After all, you have left your home for my brother, and it was no hardship. There are plenty of houses available.”

She wondered if he meant it as an attack. His tone was so blunt, she couldn’t tell if he was upset about it or not, if he was placating her or being sincere, if he meant after all as a given or as a stab at a supposed sacrifice, downplaying the actual sacrifice she had made.

She felt her temper rising as it had that morning but then remembered.

“Tobirama doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

She would give him the benefit of the doubt. She would.

She took a breath before speaking, letting her anxiety - she wanted him to like her - go along with it to attack the problem rationally. “And yet you didn’t move out until after you met me,” she said, “If it was really on the Elder’s recommendation or otherwise, you would have already been resettled by the time I arrived. So, what was it really?”

She met his eyes as she said it, refusing to look away even if his red eyes seemed to look right through her.

He didn’t answer, for a moment, just kept looking at her, head tilted slightly to the side, as if he were a scientist and she was a particularly interesting sample of bacteria.

She didn’t like it. At all. But she had weathered worse. She took another sip of tea and squashed her discomfort.

“I stayed because Hashirama insisted that you would not mind. I told him from the beginning it was a bad idea, but as usual, he refused to listen.”

“Why was it, in your opinion, a bad idea?” she asked, keeping her voice level even as it wanted to sharpen.

“Because I am not my brother,” Tobirama said with an easy shrug, “For one thing, I make a very poor housemate. I keep very long hours and am ill-suited to company on most days. Hashirama has learned not to mind over the years, but there was no need to subject you to it.”

She sipped at her tea, and did not object to his flawed reasoning. If she could live with Satsu, who was a grump in the morning, and terribly nosy besides, she could handle a recluse lurking in his own room.

He continued, treating her silence as an agreement. “I am well aware of the variance in our temperament, Hashirama and mine, and that people who tend to like people like him do not tend to like people like me,” he said it matter of fact, like it didn’t bother him, even though it bothered her that he had assumed, rightly or wrongly, that she wouldn’t like him (or maybe she was bothered that he was right, she had initially, up until this conversation, thought him to be, at the very least, rude if not mean).

He took a sip of his tea before continuing, “And besides, it was clear that I disturbed you both.”

“You didn’t,” Mito denied. She hadn’t felt disturbed. Taken aback, maybe, but not in the way that he seemed to mean it.

But he shrugged, and it felt incongruous with the stiff way he held himself, like a statue cracking. “Regardless, it is done. I am settled here, and no worse for it.” His eyes slid to her. “And if I am honest, the quiet is somewhat refreshing, so thank you.”

“Me?”

He nodded.

“I have never seen my brother so at ease, not since our mother died. I am glad he found you.”

Again. The words were stone. They were blunt, and emotionless, and could have said anything, but they didn’t. They said only kind things, things meant to excuse her, make her happy. She  couldn’t be sure if he meant the things he said, his face gave nothing away, but had he really given her any reason to doubt?

So, she decided, firmly, not to. Instead, she reached out. Laid a hand on his arm, even though it was covered in a blue lacquered vambrace. He went even stiller, seemed to stop breathing, but that was good. She wanted his whole attention.

“I am the lucky one. Your brother is wonderful. But part of why he is so wonderful is that he has given me a new family. A family that you are a part of. I am also sorry if I did anything to make you feel unwelcome in your own home. I assure you, it was unintentional.”

She waited. It felt like an hour before he nodded.

She smiled, victorious, and patted his arm before leaning back and letting him go.

“Now,” she said. “You are going to explain to me exactly how much of Hashirama and my work you have been doing, and agree with me when I tell you that you won’t be doing it anymore.”

She thought she just might see a smile on his stony face.

“Yes, ma’am,” he obeyed.

She nodded, happy that was settled.

After that, her days became very busy indeed. She never told him, but she had no idea how Tobirama had handled her work and Hashirama’s and his own for months because she could barely manage just hers. Initially, she had tried to turn down his assistance, but in reality, she needed both his and Hashirama’s experience to make her way through the mire that was Senju clan politics.

Every time she felt like she got her feet under her, it felt like there was something new to learn.

Like that Noriko was a bitchy old bat.

“Of course, Mito-sama cannot be unaware of the potential ramifications of her proposed course of action. Of course, we the Senju must endeavor to forge new treaties with the merchants of Whirlpool, as we are undoubted allies. However, to favor one alliance over another would be unwise,” the crone crooned, like her words weren’t dripping poison and bad decisions.

“Over your nephew in the Capital, you mean,” Mito said, unwilling to be intimidated.

Noriko’s smile turned icy, and she tilted her head, overly elaborate hair ornaments tinkling, and utterly incongruous with the menace in her eyes. “You are young, my dear. I am sure that with more experience, you would not be so quick to leap to judgement against your elders, who have their own clan’s best interest at heart.”

Mito stiffened at the insinuation that would never have been made if Hashirama wasn’t miles away, running so hard and so fast her own legs ached in response, risking his life for their family. She felt a flush rise, her words tangled in her throat as she tried to sort through the rage that followed. She had been clan matriarch for six months. If Noriko thought she had any right to doubt Mito’s conviction to her family-

“I must have misheard my honored aunt,” Tobirama’s voice from her left cut through the tension like honed steel. She ruthlessly suppressed her flinch, but not her glare at Noriko even as she deferred to her brother-in-law. He always came to these meetings when he was in the compound, but almost never spoke. “Because surely she wouldn’t dare to insinuate disloyalty in my honored sister, our matriarch.”

Mito, and everyone else, she was vaguely aware, looked to him in surprise. Not only had he spoken, but he sounded dangerous, like a warning, and Mito could feel a chill go up her spine that was mostly drowned out by the way she felt, just a little, touched. 

“Of course not,” Noriko said, all soothing honey that did nothing to thaw either she or Tobirama.

“Then you would do well to remember that, in the absence of my brother, Mito-sama is the one who will be making the final decision with the advice of the council. Nothing more,” he said, and bowed to Mito. “Please, continue, Mito-sama.”

And just like that, with the unmoving support of her brother-in-law, the opposition melted away. The meeting was over within the hour.

She left with Tobirama. They hadn’t spoken much since that day in his kitchen so many months ago, a few awkward dinners and endless business discussions aside, but he came to her defense when she felt alone in a hostile room. 

“Thank you, Tobirama,” she said because she should, and because she was grateful, but just to be clear, she continued by saying “I could have handled it myself, but I appreciate the support.”

“Yes, you could have. However, you were in the right. Noriko has been pushing poor contracts on us for too long.”

“And if I were not right?” she asked.

He looked at her sideways. “Then I would have told you so, in private.”

She gave him a nod, knowing it didn’t adequately portray her appreciation, and watched him go his separate way back to his home.

At breakfast a few days later, Satsu opened her mouth with a wicked grin, saying, “I heard a rumor the other night.”

Hashirama was back, though still asleep, and Mito had been quietly enjoying her afterglow as she ate her breakfast. It was the first time the cousins had a chance to talk since his return.

“Hm?” she motioned for her friend to continue.

“Apparently, it’s an old one, and everyone knows, but people say that Tobirama is a bastard,” Satsu said, eyes inviting Mito to share the joke, to be scandalized, to be outraged.

Instead, Mito raised an eyebrow at her friend.

Honestly, the woman had been trying Mito’s patience lately. Every time they talked for the last few weeks, there had been some new salacious story about something Tobirama had done or said that was out of line or cruel. She doubted that Satsu and Tobirama would ever be friends, but she could go without hearing Satsu complain about him all the time.

“His tongue is certainly sharp, but I was not aware that was any kind of news,” Mito said, hoping Satsu would drop it.

“No, not like that,” Satsu said, leaning forward to mutter. “An illegitimate child. Rumor goes his mother ran off with a Hatake or something. Why else would he look like that? Plus, he’s nothing like Hashirama. It makes sense he could be a mutt…”

Mito felt like she was looking at a stranger. Satsu could be casually cruel sometimes, overconfident in her own judgment, but no more so than Mito usually, but as of that moment, Mito could never remember being more ashamed of her friend.

Dishes clattered together as Mito stood.

“Shame on you,” she hissed, looking down at the other woman. “He is my brother.”

“Wh-Mito, I didn-”

But Mito didn’t stay to listen. She didn’t realize where her feet were taking her until she ended up at Tobirama’s door.

He answered it after her third knock, face blank.

She realized abruptly that she had absolutely nothing to say, no reason for her presence once confronted, so she said the first thing that came to mind. “Have you had breakfast yet?”

He shook his head, just a hint of... bewilderment cracking through his visage.

“Good. I’m taking you to Akasaka’s,” she said. It was the only restaurant among the Senju that served breakfast.

“I’ll need a moment,” he said. “You are welcome to come in.”

She did so.

Mito followed him down the familiar, empty hallway to his familiar, empty kitchen, (she was somewhat surprised, after so many months that his home was still so sparse) where she stopped, expecting him to take the stairs up to where his room must be, but he didn’t. Instead, he went through the archway under the stairs to a sitting area she had vaguely seen before. Curious, she followed him.

The room was equally plain, with a sofa, and a desk that was surrounded by stacks of scrolls, books, papers, and manila folders.

Well, that was to be expected, she supposed, but that wasn’t where Tobirama went. Instead, her eyes followed him to the far corner of the room where a small shrine sat, incense burning away in front of a picture of two young boys.

Aloewood. And ginger lily. For the boys, brothers, Hashirama still couldn’t bear to speak of but the one time he’d tried to share his losses with her, and she with him, just after they’d acknowledged each other as soulmates.

Tobirama knelt, but didn’t speak.

Mito hesitated, feeling like she was intruding, but he looked… small, somehow. He was one of the most terrifying shinobi she had ever seen, but there was something quietly tragic to realize that he spent his mornings here, praying alone. She went to his side, and knelt with him.

“What were their names?” she asked.

Tobirama swallowed before he answered, picking up the framed photo and handing it to her.

“Kawarama is on the left. Itama on the right.”

She looked at them, studied their faces, and saw all the ways that the two boys linked their brothers. Not only in looks, but sometimes, Mito couldn’t help but be aware of the gaping hole in her new family. Now, she’d found it.

She put the picture down and prayed for them with Tobirama until the incense burned down.

Over breakfast, the first meal they’d shared without anyone else around, she learned that not only was Tobirama’s reputation as a genius well deserved, but that it applied to sealing as well, and no one had told her. (Unexceptable.) That he had just as deep an understanding of matrix theory as she did, had read and actually comprehended her father’s treaties on tertiary layering. And he had a pet project, something to do with teleportation. She asked to see his notes, meaning later some time, but instead he nodded and pulled out the book.

Oh. The Book.

Leather bound from stingray he’d tanned himself, with ropes he’d spun himself, full of a hundred pages of paper he had made himself, infusing his chakra in every step. From the water he’d soaked the mulberry fibers in to the fire he’d heated the mixture and burned the ash for said mixtures with, there was not a part of The Book that was handled by any conflicting chakra signature to interfere with the seals inside. Seals he’d painted with ink he’d made himself as well, dedicating the full year and a half required to the project.

Most seal masters, herself included, used ink sourced from Whirlpool, where it was made by experts who spent a lifetime learning to suppress their chakra from the process, to keep from interfering with the sealmaker’s own signature. For most seals, it wouldn’t matter, as the compounds in ink were stabilized by the deadened bone glue, but for high leveled sealing, using proper ink could be the difference between success and years of work going up in literal smoke.

None of which mattered in the face of what was inside The Book.

Page after page of the most stable storage seals she had ever seen. Quadruple layered matrices with bilateral reflections to better hold the eighteen anchor points for the dimensional transitions.

Those seals would hold for thousands of uses, perhaps more from their maker, maybe even in perpetuity with the detail Tobirama had dedicated to the whole thing, with loops in for keyed access.

She might be drooling. She wanted one.

(She would never ask for one though, as even if he made her one, their conflicting signatures would render the whole process moot. And she couldn’t make her own. Didn’t even know where to start. She knew how to make her own ink. It was part of her apprenticeship, but papermaking went beyond even Whirlpool apprenticeships, and she didn’t even know where to begin with book binding. It must have taken years.

But if he could bottle the process and sell it, any seal maker would give him any price he named for it, unquestionably.)

Only when he opened it to the tab labeled ‘Teleportation’ and summoned three scrolls out of it did she realize what it was for. A library, a filing cabinet, filled with everything he was working on, dozens of projects if the tabs were any indication. All of his work, carried with him in a book.

(She wanted one.)

It was a masterpiece, equal to what hers had been five years ago. And Tobirama had called himself passable.

If it weren’t so undignified, she would have salivated.

She coaxed him into telling her every step he’d taken in making it anyway, utterly fascinated with the process, had him talking until his voice was cracking. She got the feeling he didn’t speak at lengths often. That would change. He would be telling her all about his projects from now on.

They barely even got to his current project. Teleportation. Based on seal use. Theoretically possible, she even knew a master back in Whirlpool who had been working on it, on and off, for years, with little to no progress, but she hadn’t looked too deeply into the project herself. Her interests lay elsewhere.

“The dimensional barrier is unsuited for the passage of living things. All the subjects I’ve tried have not survived the transition,” he said, and she nodded thoughtfully from where she was looking over his notes. They were impeccable, even if he was clearly still in the brainstorming phase, initial hypotheses failed and sending him back to the drawing board.

She rung out a promise that he would keep her up to date on his progress.

Their conversation had been so long and enjoyable that it wasn’t until he walked her home around noon that she remembered what she was mad about. When she did, in light of the wonderful morning she’d had, and the way that Tobirama had answered her questions without dumbing his answer down as so many did, had given up what must have been a very busy part of his perpetually busy day just because she had asked him to, had walked her home, it all seemed so much worse.

The way his clan talked about him, the way the first thing she had been led to believe about him was that he was inconsiderate, the way his battle prowess had even his own comrades wary in a way they weren’t of Hashirama, all due to a face that gave nothing away, a physiognomy that he couldn’t control any more than the weather but had even, to her eternal shame, given her pause. The way he’d looked so surprised at her interest, to the way he prayed, alone, every morning, for two little boys, so much so that his clothes smelled of the incense from the scent that never left his home, to the way that vicious, petty gosip had made its way all the way to her best friend, to foreigners, as if it made an ounce of difference when he risked his life for them, had given his baby brothers for them, all of it. So. Much. Worse.

Satsu apologized (to her). It didn’t really make it better.

“I’m not the one you need to apologize to,” Mito insisted, and knew from the stubborn set of Satsu’s jaw that further action was unlikely. Still, she kept her opinions to herself from then on, which was a good thing, as Mito didn’t know what she would have done otherwise.

(Be incandescent with rage, among other things.)

It might have been better if she got to see Tobirama more. Instead, she worried every day that she was going to lose him. Or her husband. Or both of them.

The war was so much worse than she had imagined. Whirlpool was relatively peaceful. The Land of Wave and the Land of Fire had kept it as a balance between them for thirty years. Whirlpool’s mercantile connections made them wealthy, but it was not a wealth that could be stolen without a full invasion (not an easy feat with the protection seals carved into the very cliffs), owing to geography, and with both of their neighbors embroiled in civil war, they had remained vigilant, but thus far unbothered.

It wasn’t so here. Here, she had to watch her family leave and come back bloody. Watch her husband’s smile falter and fall in the face of ever more dead kin.

He told her of Madara, a friend long lost to the helpless churning of an endless conflict, whatever they were fighting for long gone, buried with the dead, replaced with an unbound quest for vengeance.

Mito watched it tear her husband apart, every time he had to go to battle and bring back more family to bury. Watched how he agonized over every decision, too full of empathy to not see that every kinsmen he laid in the ground was mirrored by an Uchiha dead that his old friend had to bury, dead, at least indirectly, at his own hand.

Thankfully, the pitched battles were rare, the fight more characterized by constant skirmishing then the devastating, landscape shaping fights her family limped home from. Missions for clients, the Senju’s main form of income, interrupted by Uchiha, in competition for the same jobs and fueled by hatred to kill any Senju they could catch out in the open.

Sometime in this chaos, her father wanted her to visit home. He was turning fifty, half a century, and wanted his eldest, favorite daughter home, after nearly a year gone to her new home, to celebrate.

She wasn’t going to go. She had decided. Her family needed her here.

“We also need our alliance with Whirlpool to remain sturdy. Turning down the invitation would be impolitic,” Tobirama stated as she, he, and Hashirama discussed it.

“And it would do you good to see your father,” Hashirama agreed.

“It would leave the homefront undefended,” she countered. They all knew by now, Mito had laid over a hundred seals to protect her home, had seen just how formidable they were when a squadron of assassins had tried to make it through and been turned to stone. She was the anchor for them. She couldn’t leave.

“Then Hashirama will remain here,” Tobirama said.

“Wh- No, I won’t!”

“You cannot both leave. Mito must go. To not send her would make us look either weak or dishonorable, which will leave us inexcusably weakened. Your mokuton is the only other force capable of defending the compound in her absence,” he said, sounding annoyingly logical about the whole thing.

“But then who will go with her?” Hashirama said. Mito thought about protesting that she didn’t need an escort, but remembered Morimoto, only sixteen but strong and full of promise, had been brought back home in pieces after a routine mission, charred and burned to the point of being unrecognizable not two weeks ago and held her tongue.

There was confidence and then there was undue arrogance. She knew which one going alone would be categorized as.

“With her permission,” Tobirama said, nodding to her, “I will go with her.”

Hashirama looked to her as well, leaving the final decision to her.

She sighed.

It took them a week to get to Whirlpool. Tobirama had set an easy, cautious pace, keeping off the main roads, but nothing that she and Satsu, couldn’t maintain. Satsu had decided, of course, to accompany them on their trip home, and it occurred to Mito after the first day of walking that it was by far the most she had seen of her old friend in months. She had just been so busy...

Her friend and Tobirama seemed to have put their differences behind them. Or, rather, Satsu had figured out how to not be offended by his indifference. Mito wasn’t sure Tobirama had even noticed that her friend didn’t like him.

Tobirama had insisted on bringing Touka, and two other Senju that he trusted. One, Benjiro, she had met before. He’d been put on her guard before. From what she knew of him, he was quiet and respectful, but that might have been because they had only really met while he was on duty. The other, a kunoichi named Junko, she hadn’t met, but her and Satsu had hit it off as soon as they had stopped for the first night.

Mito thought it was all a bit much, but Tobirama insisted.

“You are the clan matriarch. It would be remiss to leave you unprotected.”

Hashirama, as usual, agreed with him. Mito was learning that it was pointless to try and argue with Tobirama. He seemed to only bother giving his opinion if he was unwilling to change it. It would have been more (or maybe less) annoying if he wasn’t always right.

Touka had taken Benjiro to patrol the perimeter.

“But I thought you were a sensor?” Satsu had asked, annoyed. Benjiro had been helping her set up camp.

“I am, but only a fool thinks themself infallible.”

He was right, of course. As usual. So now it was Satsu, Junko, and her sitting around a small fire. Tobirama, also as usual, held himself apart. He had pulled out his Book, and from it, half a dozen scroll which were scattered around him.

Mito looked between the two women, who were talking about an upcoming Senju’s spring festival that they would all be missing, and comparing it to the one in Whirlpool that they would witness, as it fell only days after her father’s birthday. A week’s worth of festivities were planned, and it all sounded tedious. Mito could feel Hashirama, back home, worried about her, a twisting feeling in her gut that she was sure he could always feel coming from her every time he went away. It made her too restless to sit and talk about fireworks, so she stood.

“Mito?” Satsu called after her, and she sounded worried which was just ridiculous.

Objectively, Tobirama might have appeared foreboding, brooding, and fierce, but she was in no way objective anymore. It seemed obvious to her now. He was focused, not angry.

And besides, if anyone could distract her, it would be him and his work. Especially as, from her glance, he was still wrangling with the same teleportation project he’d been working on before.

She thought, for an instant, about not disturbing him, but watching him cross out what he’d just written, she thought he might welcome a second opinion.

“How’s it coming?” she asked, sitting down next to him.

He sighed, nearly inaudible, but enough for her to hear, which spoke volumes of his frustration. It made her smile.

“That well, huh?”

“No progress as of yet,” he admitted, holding out to show her the scroll he was writing on as she leaned over his shoulder. “As you know, I’ve been attempting to alter some kind of storage seal.” He gestured to the altered seal, and she nodded, looking it over. “The concept of one seal that can be transported across a space with an object inside and then release that object to the seal’s new position is identical to my goal, but the methods do not align. For one thing, if the focus seal remains in this dimension, then once the activator is on the other side of that barrier and in another dimension, then the seal is unreachable due to the break, even if I could survive the jump, which, after nearly six months of testing, I can reliably tell you is impossible.”

“Also, once the activator is in the other dimension, someone could move the anchor to a new location. You would have no way of knowing where you were jumping back to. You would have to trust that the trajectory of the seal bearing object is not disrupted. That kind of blind spot would be dangerous in any situation, but even more disastrous in a battle scenario,” Mito added.

He nodded, and said, “The jump from one location to the other needs to be instantaneous.”

“Hm,” she thought it over, but something about the way he’d said that turned over in her mind. Instantaneous. Instant. “What if it isn’t a matter of where?”

Tobirama’s brow furrowed as his eyebrows pulled together.

“Explain,” he demanded.

“It’s not the location that you’re trying to alter. It’s not just space. It’s space and time.”

He blinked at her. Then blinked again, looking away, up at the stars, and his face fell into something pensieve. Without looking back at her, he summoned a new scroll out of the Book, a blank one this time, and began writing. And writing. And writing.

Suddenly, he paused, and looked up at her with a genuine smile. It was the first she’d seen from him and it warmed her inside out, more than the fire not ten feet away. 

It was a nice smile. She wished he’d smile more often.

“Thank you, Mito,” he said.

“You’re very welcome,” she beamed back, and stood. Before she left him, she hesitated for just a moment, but decided to just do as her instinct wanted. It had never led her astray before, so she dropped a hand onto his wild white hair.

He stiffened, but didn’t say anything as she petted it back, hands gentle on such a brilliant head. His blood eyes met hers, face stone again, but the eyes said he was more than wary.

Mito just smiled at him, “Good luck, nii-san. Don’t stay up all night.”

The eyes of everyone in the clearing followed her, but she ignored them as she settled onto her bedroll, opening the novella she’d brought for the trip.

After a moment, the two by the fire started chatting quietly again.

It took much longer for Tobirama’s pen to start scratching again, but it made her smile when it did.

By the time they got to Whirlpool, she had watched him fill up three scrolls by firelight. He didn’t share, but she could tell that he was constantly thinking about it, finally making progress, so she didn’t bother him. He would come to her if he got stuck again, she was nearly certain.

She had expected him to spend the whole ship ride to the Island working on it, but instead he stood at the bow of the ship, staring out into the horizon.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” she asked him.

He nodded, and said, “More so than I expected.”

She looked at him, surprised, “You’ve never seen the sea?”

Crossing his arms across the armor she had never seen him go without (blue, like the ocean all around them), he shook his head.

She didn’t know why, but it made her sad.

Whirlpool was just as beautiful as she remembered. Her family had met her at the pier, the sound of the gulls nearly drowned out by their cheers, her beautiful city rosy behind them and their smiles. They walked back to her clan’s home on the cliffs, up the terraces along the cobbled paths she’d grown up on, past familiar faces that seemed so much the same and so much different than before.

Or maybe it was her that was different.

The cliffs were the same, and the rhythmic melody of the waves, unchanged, and she took a deep breath, looking back out to the sea as they climbed, enjoying the bracing spray as in cleansed her face.

Her father met them at the gates of her childhood home, the largest manor at the top of the cliffs, overlooking the town below, its vibrancy of fountains and the docks and the markets all mellowed into a brilliant orange by the slowly setting sun. He swept her up in his arms, and it was like she was a child again. But of course she wasn’t. Her father let her go, took her face in his hands, and tsked.

“Their war has found you. I knew it would,” he said quietly, devastated.

She summoned a smile for him, went to answer, but he shook his head and turned to her entourage.

After that, she got a little lost for days in the whirlwind of introductions and reintroductions, of friends she hadn’t seen in a year, children who had grown so much, sisters and cousins she had written to, had missed, but now were here and wanting to know everything about her new home and family, demanded her time and she was glad to give it.

Satsu had escaped to spend time with her own family, but Touka remained with her nearly at all times, possibly at Tobirama’s request. But not asking gave Mito plausible deniability, so she didn’t.

She was good company regardless, and Mito was glad to have someone to show off her home to. The Uzumaki homeland, the largest settlement and capital of the small country was carved out of the cliffs of a sparkling bay. It was nearing midmorning, and the sunrise had faded into daylight as people, her people, bustled around. Down below, terrace after terrace fell away to a pier that went on for miles. There was the never ending clamor of ships being pounded and hewn into existence, of fishmongers and traders offloading their wears as they came in with the tide. Banners painted with the sigil of the Uzumaki were mixed with seals for good fortune and prosperity, woven in blues, greens, yellows, and whites.

It was all nearly as colorful as the people around them. Her family was, as a general rule, loud and effusive in everything they did. As such, the market was a riot of activity, with people shouting and children running by laughing. After so long with the Senju (who, if she was honest, were more similar to her own temperament than her own people), the noise settled onto her like an old, favored blanket, worn and comforting and filled with the unnamed sensation of home.

She was so caught up in it, she almost didn’t notice Tobirama on the terrace below, sitting on the sea wall, surrounded by a group of six or seven children.

Beside her, Touka snorted.

“Figures,” she said, and nudged Mito’s shoulder with her own.

They watched as one of the little girls, Suki’s daughter Mito thought, climbed up on the wall next to Tobirama. He steadied her as she grabbed hold of his shoulder guards to lean in and whisper a secret in his ear.

He actually smiled and nodded in response. Mito couldn’t hear what the little girl asked, or what Tobirama replied, but he stood, picking the child up with practiced ease, certainly more than Mito could attest to having, despite her own experience with her family’s youngsters.

Tobirama set the girl on the pavers, gently moving her aside. With a word she couldn’t hear, Tobirama had the other children circled around him, with plenty of open space.

With a few quick hand seals, butterflies, made of water and sparkling in the morning light, danced into existence around the intimidating Senju. The children squealed and laughed, audible all the way up here, and utterly delighted as they chased the jutsu around the plaza, weaving through indulgent adults as they tried to capture their prizes.

Well, all but Suki’s daughter, who stayed and grasped Tobirama’s hand the moment he’d dropped it, beaming up at the man, who gave the girl the softest look Mito had ever seen.

“Tobirama’s always been good with kids,” Touka’s voice startled her. The Senju’s arms were crossed, but she was smiling, even though it was broken somehow. “Hashirama won’t tell you, but Tobirama basically raised their brothers single handedly. Butsuma, their father was… well. To call him a monster would have been generous.”

“Hashirama never talks about him,” Mito said.

“I’m not surprised. His father wanted weapons, not children, and he pounded them like iron on an anvil. All of them, but Tobirama worst of all,” said Touka, still pensive as she watched her cousin below.

“Why?” Mito asked.

Touka shrugged, and looked at her sideways. “You’ve heard the rumors,” she said, and stepped away from the ledge, drawing Mito with her.

Mito flushed, and fought the urge to glance back before Tobirama was out of view. Instead, she looked to her aunt, a notorious busybody, but she was still four stalls back, out of hearing range, so she relaxed. She had heard the rumors, hadn’t quite forgiven Satsu for sharing now that she could never unhear them.

When Mito didn’t answer, Touka continued. “But besides that, his brothers were everything to Tobirama. He wouldn’t let Butsuma touch them if he could possibly put himself between them.”

She shook her head, and said, “He’s never been the same since they died, but he’s always had a weakness for children.”

Mito thought about it, rolled it over in her mind, but figured that made sense. Children, lacking the years worth of prejudice, were less easily offended, less likely to judge. They wouldn’t know Tobirama’s fearsome reputation as a shinobi and killer, might not be afraid of his white hair and blood red eyes. That he would like them back was maybe more surprising, but then she remembered two faces grinning out of a worn frame, the only picture in his home, the way his voice, normally so unwaveringly steady, had faltered in trying to say their names.

Maybe it should have been less surprising. It seemed she was still letting assumptions about her brother-in-law shape her views, she realized irately.

So, at her father’s birthday dinner that night, she made a point (to herself, if no one else) to sit with Tobirama, even if it drew strange looks from her other family, who expected her to visit with them, from her father who wanted her at the head table.

He would understand. Her place was here, between her brother and the Senju woman who was quickly becoming her favorite cousin.

For the rest of the trip, she sought him out in the morning, turned down requests from her Uzumaki family to monopolize her time, and dedicated at least part of her day to showing around her brother. She showed him and Touka her favorite walks through the woods and up the beach, the temple she and Hashirama had married in (she didn’t hesitate in joining Tobirama as he lit an incense for his brothers, clapped and prayed to the deity she had grown up with for boys she hadn’t been lucky enough to meet), showed them the tide pools, jetties, and reefs that caused the whirlpools their Island was famous for, everything she loved and missed.

He still didn’t talk much, but her other family got passed their confusion and wary looks quickly as they realized that if they wanted to invite Mito somewhere, then Touka and Tobirama would both also have to merit an invitation. Despite her time with the Senju, Mito, as the headman’s favorite daughter, was still a highly desirable guest. They had no shortage of invitations.

Her calendar was full.

However, Mito still lost (and refused to feel guilty about it) the two days after introducing Tobirama to Master Nobutada, the sealmaster who was working on teleportation. She joined the discussions about relativity and time dilation (which were honestly beyond her but fascinating nonetheless) with great enthusiasm.

Touka abandoned them to it, as the conversation had flown too quickly for her to follow, but Mito was fascinated.

The old master had been suspicious at first whether Tobirama’s skills were equal to the task he was attempting, but once Mito made Tobirama show Nobutada The Book, and all his notes, those doubts vanished. The look on the old man’s face was priceless and Mito would cherish it forever (but also the look on Tobirama’s face, quietly stunned at all the fuss, but then slightly afraid at Nobutada’s enthusiasm. Uzumaki had that effect on people.) In fact, she was fairly certain that Tobirama had become the old man’s favorite person given that he nearly cried when Mito finally had to drag Tobirama away.

It was unavoidable. She could only ignore her family for so long. Besides, there was the festival. Her father had particularly requested their presence at his side. They could not refuse.

That night, they watched the fireworks over the ocean from her family home, watched the dances and parades weave through the city below as the stars went on infinitely above and for the first time in nearly a year, she let herself just breathe.

Nobutada arrived not an hour after they did. He hadn’t come out of his hermitage for one of these in years, but appeared from the shadows to pull Tobirama away, ignoring how uncomfortable he looked, and introduce him to some of the other seal masters. Mito waved him off with a reassuring smile when he looked to her to rescue him. She should have known that it would only take one person finding out about Tobirama’s Book for everyone to demand to see it. And to talk with him. And accept him wholeheartedly, the way Uzumaki did everything, the way that even their own clan seemed to struggle with. He was brilliant.

“He is not what I expected,” her father said from over her shoulder.

She smiled at him, and said “Me neither. But I’m glad. He’s a better brother than I could have hoped for.”

“Indeed. A good surprise. I’m very proud of you, you know,” he said. She looked up at him. He elaborated, “You have made a home for yourself among strangers, and found true friends in the process. That takes bravery and determination. You should be proud.”

Mito accepted the praise with the hug he gave her, and the way he kissed her forehead, because she understood and welcomed the sentiment, but really, looking at Touka, showing off her naginata katas in front of some of their shinobi and Tobirama, holding his own amongst the brightest minds of her people, she felt more lucky than brave.

She’d known her family would love those two. It was always nice to be proven right.

It was almost the perfect night, except for one thing. Satsu found her soulmate. Which was not, on its own, a bad thing, but it meant that when they left Whirlpool two days later, her friend wouldn’t be coming with them.

“You’ll be fine,” Satsu told her. “You don’t need me anymore.”

“That’s not true,” Mito protested. Satsu had been her link to home for so long, her anchor when things seemed too strange or too hard, the politics and the war seemed too much to weather, and now Mito was going to have to leave her behind.

Satsu just gave her a flat look, and said, “Yes, it is.”

It felt like a condemnation, but Satsu just sighed, summoned a smile, and said, “It’s not a bad thing. The Senju are your home now. They’re your family. It’s natural, and I’m happy for you, but I think that if this year has taught me anything, it’s that my place is here, and that your place is with them.”

Mito supposed she couldn’t begrudge her that. She was… right.

So, Mito swallowed everything that conflicted, all of her own feelings and focused on what was good here. Satsu had found her soulmate. And that was amazing.

Mito hugged her. “It’s you who I should be happy for. And thank you. For everything.”

Satsu hugged her back, and Mito promised herself it wasn’t a goodbye, even if it felt like one.

Satsu sailed back with them to the Land of Fire, her new soulmate in tow, who was charming and lovely and perfect for her friend.

When they disembarked, Satsu pulled Tobirama aside. Mito couldn’t hear what was said, but could read her friend well enough to know an apology when she saw one, know her relief at Tobirama’s acceptance of it, and the way he shook her hand before leaving, bridges fully mended.

It made saying goodbye when it was her turn that much harder. She hugged her friend tight and tried to remember everything she could. When they separated, they shared a smile and turned away, towards their own lives.

Still, for the first time, as they travelled back to the Senju lands, she felt like she could honestly say that Tobirama was part of her family, that she knew him, and loved him not just for Hashirama’s sake, but her own.

She was excited to be going home.

Once she’d returned, Hashirama nearly knocked her off her feet as he swept her up and spun her around, his joy filling his chest and hers, palpable and painful, too much, but he loved her, had missed her. She clung to him and laughed, but after that (after they had relearned each other in the most intimate detail once more), when things had settled down again back into the same routine as before, it felt bereft somehow. Their table felt empty. It wasn’t just Satsu being gone, but it felt wrong.

So, she invited Tobirama to dinner. Often. More so as the years went on. He didn’t always have time to come, the world was chaos around them, churning and churning faster and faster as hostilities with the Uchiha grew worse and worse.

But she tried to insist, once a week if she could, once a month if she couldn’t, that he join them for at least one meal, if only so she could make sure he actually ate. She didn’t know if it was the war, the ever more hostile meetings with the clan Elders, the constant fighting that was wearing on all of them, but he looked more and more gaunt and tired every time she saw him. Even more reserved, a feat in the face of everything else.

She knew he still prayed every morning, even if he didn’t make it to the vigils she had convinced Hashirama to hold for his brothers on the anniversary of their deaths. She guessed that it would near as make no difference to Tobirama, who treated every day as such, but she thought they might help her husband heal. He was the type that needed to grieve with others, needed an acknowledgement of suffering and sacrifice that would help make the loss more bearable.

But she didn’t think that was the cause of Tobirama’s… fading. Slipping. She didn’t know how to help, her own hands full and his unwillingness to see that anything was wrong.

Talking about his developing teleportation seal always seemed to distract him, and Mito was more than willing to indulge him.

Even if Hashirama, eventually, wasn’t.

“Can’t we talk about something else?” he asked, and Tobirama’s mouth shut with a nearly audible snap from where he was trying to explain the relationship between gravity and the speed of light and lightning.

Mito gave her husband a withering look, but he just sighed and fell backwards from the kotatsu (they were gathered around one on the back engawa, enjoying the evening air and a cup of tea) to flop on the floor. Usually, she would have found his antics cute, but it was hard to now, when it had been so hard to even get Tobirama talking in the first place.

“We could talk about poetry, or oh! That new play from Myotoka! The kabuki that came last month, with the noble and the courtesan,” Hashirama said, sitting up again in excitement.

Tobirama didn’t object, but-

“Husband,” Mito said, “Tobirama didn’t see it, remember? We shouldn’t ruin it for him.”

Hashirama waved her off. “Oh, it’s not like he’ll ever see it. Tobirama hates plays. And everything fun, really.”

Scowling, Tobirama returned fire. “Only you would find such tedious displays of banality interesting.”

“You find everything but killing tedious. It’s no wonder you’re so good at it.”

Mito nearly gave her whiplash looking back at her husband in surprise. He sounded vicious. Never, ever, had she heard him sound so mean, especially not to his brother, who looked equally taken aback, but in his own way, the way in which he threw up walls so high he seemed to turn to stone.

“Hashir-” she tried to interrupt, but was ignored.

“I’m good at defending my family,” said Tobirama, too angry to hide his hurt.

“You’re good at killing Uchiha. It’s not the same thing.”

“And you’re good at playing tag with your supposed friend while your family die ar-”

“You would see them all dead before y-”

Suddenly, they were both standing.

“I wouldn’t live to see them ki-”

“Enough!” Mito shouted as she stood between them. It was the first time she had ever raised her voice in this house, and they both paused to stare at her.

“Mito, I’m s-” her husband tried to say, but his younger brother cut him off, resolute.

“Forgive me, Mito, Anija. I’ve overstayed my welcome.”

And he was gone before either of them could say anything.

There was a beat of silence, a moment of still, before Hashirama sagged with a sob that ripped through her own heart.

“I’m sorry. I know, I just- All he talks about is finding a better way to kill the Uchiha. I can’t-”

He couldn’t finish, couldn’t say the words to describe the hurricane she could feel in him, tearing him apart.

But she couldn’t waver, even if his pain was tearing her apart as well.

“He is trying to find a way to win the war,” she said, and felt the words cut him like a knife.

“And then what? Murder them all, hunt them to extinction, is that what you want?”

“I want what you want.” She wrapped her arms around her husband as he wept. “But it is hard for him too. Touka is still with the medics, and Izuna nearly killed him today,” she said, even as he wretched himself out of her arms to stand at the door. “You can’t expect him to fight on forever!”

He stayed silent.

She made herself say it, knowing it would hurt him. “You’ll lose him, Hashirama. You’ll lose them all if we can’t stop this.”

Hashirama stormed off and left her there. She wasn’t sure whose pain was making her eyes water, her throat tighten, and her bones shake, but it didn’t matter.

Once, just once, she let herself weep.

This gods-forsaken war.

He joined her in bed that night, whispered apologies into the dark. She let him hold her, but when he asked her, “What should I do?” she could only turn in his arms and hold him back.

She had no answers for him.

(A few weeks later, during which Tobirama had made himself conspicuously absent, on Kawarama’s death day, she couldn’t let him try and handle it alone, like every other year, but worse. When she found him, bleeding and hurt from trying to do the impossible, trying to bend space-time to his will, trying to travel at light-speed and nearly killing himself in the process, she couldn’t help but think enough.

Enough.)

Another day, another plea for peace terms returned unopened. Every time it tore something apart in Hashirama. The pain was familiar now.

Then, one day they weren’t. One day, Hashirama came home from the battlefield to sweep her into his arms and weep and shake, the fear and hope that had burned her, from him, shaking her too.

“He-Tobirama did it. I don’t kn- I have to see the Elders. The Uchiha’s have agreed to peace.”

“What?” she said into his shoulder. “How? What did Tobirama do?”

“I can’t even- the hiraishin- he didn’t-” Hashirama couldn’t seem to string a thought together, so she pulled back, held his face in her hands.

“Breathe,” she said, and held him until he did.

“I can’t explain right now. I need to meet with the Elders and draft a peace. Madara, all the Uchiha, have agreed to come to the table, to make peace. I have to-” his words were speeding up as he began to be overwhelmed again, so she stopped him.

“Shh, it’s okay. Tell me later. Go do what you have to.”

He hugged her again, and ran off.

She turned to Benjiro and Okamoto (who had grown a lot since he’d stutteringly, accidentally introduced her to Touka while he still had spots. Now, brutalized by war as they all were, he had become reliable, if not still a bit too shy and bidible for leadership), and sent them to gather the Elders from their houses while she organized with the household staff to get ready for the company.

She figured it would be a long night.

She was right.

It took three days for things to slow down enough for her to get the whole story. That Tobirama had finished the hiraishin, had used it on Izuna Uchiha, his rival.

That he had not killed him.

Even after all these years, her brother could still manage to surprise her.

She just didn’t know why. Why didn’t he use the weapon she had helped him forge to fell their enemy? The same enemy who had killed her friends, had killed his brothers! Why didn’t he kill Izuna? They had fought for years. Tobirama could have, maybe even should have, as the peace dragged on into a series of painful deadlocks. Both families were finding it hard to bend, to forgive, but the Uchiha, despite Mito’s great misgivings, seemed sincere.

Madara seemed sincere.

She had been all set to loathe the Uchiha clan head. Did, somewhat, when she watched the easy companionship he and Hashirama shared while Tobriama, Hashirama’s actual brother was relegated to the sidelines. But he seemed to like it there, seemed to have a deep respect for the Uchiha clan head, one that she was sure he thought he hid, but Mito knew Tobirama.

Well enough to see the wound in his side he was hiding, the subtle flinch as he rose and sat that no one else saw. (Why didn’t they see? Why was it always just her who even bothered to look.)

Tobirama was a good masker. One of the best she’d seen, but he didn’t need to bother. No one was looking anyways, watching as he supported his brother’s leadership in a way no one had expected him to. Even Hashirama didn’t look anymore, if he ever had.

But she also knew him well enough not to mention it. He would tell her in his time, or he would not. Trying to make him do otherwise would just make it worse.

And besides, he had good reason to keep it quiet. He wanted the peace to work just as much as any of them.

He also seemed sure that Madara would keep that peace, thought all of the Uchiha would, but she didn’t understand why?

Didn’t understand for nearly six months, not as they pulled out a peace that would change the politics of the entire continent, convinced the Daimyo to give in and make way for the new reality of the alliance of his warring subjects, the end of a civil war that had crippled them all.

(As she let Hashirama convince her, again, to leave her home behind, this time to build a new one, to start over, and leave the past that haunted him behind them. As all of them learned to live together with people who did things so differently from them. As they, together, pulled a new reality to the fore, one that had hope as its driving force. As the village rose around them to become a legitimate city, with treaties and twenty clans under its banner. As she forged alliances in the name of her new home, Konoha, serving as its best and most successful and well connected diplomat, which took her halfway across the continent. As things settled somewhat, and she was home more and more often.)

Didn’t understand for half a year. Until Tobirama came to her, in more pain than she’d seen him try and hide ever before. Until he asked her if she knew how to block a soulbond, like it wasn’t the most tragic thing she had ever heard.

Then she knew. Understood. Wondered, for one horrified instant, which brother it was, Izuna who he had been fighting for since childhood, who he’d nearly crippled, or Madara who he watched replace him in his brother’s esteem for nearly as long. Even if she thought she knew, she had to hear him say it.

She did know. Of course it was Madara. Tobirama’s soulmate was Madara, who made no secret, even to her, of his antipathy for Tobirama.

“How long have you known?”

“Mito…”

“Tell me.”

How long have you gone off to war to slaughter your soulmate’s kin?

“Long enough to know that he hates me and that it isn’t likely to change. Mito, please.”

She didn’t need another reason to dislike Madara. She already couldn’t do anything but hate the man. She already didn’t want to like him. Not after the hell he had put her husband through for years. Now, watching the way Tobirama didn’t even let himself look towards Madara anymore, she liked him even less.

Mito didn’t know what Madara had said to Tobirama to make him so sure that their soul bond was better nonexistent than calling them together. That Tobirama’s love, which anyone would be lucky to have, would be unwelcome, but she could guess.

She saw the way the Uchiha looked at him, people she knew and had come to care for, how they had a genuine, founded fear of Tobirama.

The worst part was, she couldn’t blame them. It had taken her a year to get over her prejudice against the albino Senju, the Ghost, and she didn’t have literally dozens of dead family to have to step over to bridge that gap.

It didn’t mean the thought didn’t make her feel guilty. Especially when she would see, visceral, the way their distrust (along with his own family’s, still lingering despite her best efforts to the contrary, despite how heartbroken it left her to hear the old rumors come up again and again. Monster.) cut him open now that she knew to look for it.

But she couldn’t stop herself from thinking about it.

So on days like that, she would go and visit him. The house he’d chosen was as far away from hers, from everyone elses, as it could get and still be in the Senju area, as his old one had been. It was as sparse as his other one had been. But the smell was different.

No aloewood. No ginger lily. Just a standard agerwood and sandlewood and smoke.

He must have run out. The trade routes didn’t reach this far yet, a city sprouted from nothing. Necessities came first, well before commodities, but she hadn’t even noticed, hadn’t thought of it, knew she wouldn’t be able to fix it for maybe years.

So instead, she would bring him a framed picture she ‘liberated’ from unused corners of the main house, and watch him hang them with reverence. Remind herself of the way he way he clearly cherished the people around him. How he held them at arm's length only because they could hurt him. How he would die for each and every one of the people in those frames. Her. Touka. Hashirama. The little Uchiha boy she watched him take under his formidable wing. His Sarutobi tagalong.

(When Kagami’s parents died, months later, they had all grieved. Hashirama put on a brave face, but this was his dream they had died for. She spent the night before the funeral holding him, neither of them sleeping, spent the morning dressing each other in black.

It rained that day. Tobirama looked after his student with all of the quiet comfort that she imagined he’d spent on his own brothers.

Only to lose them. Her heart broke for both of them as she watched her brother cradle a boy he should rightfully hate, should loathe as she was sure the Uchiha clan thought he would, but he didn’t. He couldn’t. Anyone with eyes could see that he would die for the boy.

When she came by that night to invite Tobirama to dinner, an invite that was still required. Even years of her insistence that he was always welcome, he still never came without a specific invitation. When she came by that night, she found Kagami, small and exhausted tucked under a blanket on Tobirama’s couch, and she knew Tobirama wouldn’t be coming to dinner. It would be a miracle is they could pry him from the little boy’s side for weeks.

She didn’t ask if he needed anything, or if he wanted any help. She didn’t want to insinuate that he needed any, knew he would take it as if she didn’t think him capable.

In reality, there was no one she trusted more.)

It was all so hard.

She thought the peace was supposed to be easier. Why couldn’t it save just this one, the one she loved like the brother she had always wanted? Why did it just leave him more hurt?

Sometimes she wondered if she could have done it. Wondered if she could have looked between the Uzumaki and Hashirama and choose. Raised her blade against one or the other and decide. And fight. And not just give in.

More of the boys, his brothers. Ones for somewhere other than a mourning shrine.

One of his mother, a woman she wished she could have met. Could have asked her how she’d brought such strong boys out of such hell, despite only having them for a few too brief years.

Tobirama’s mask, more and more firm the longer he lingered, cracked as she handed him that picture. The way he’d said, “Thank you.” Whispered. Reverent. She thought he might cry, but he didn’t. Just held it for a while and stared, before hanging it in line with all of the others, the first thing he saw as he walked in his door.

And she would feel less conflicted, because regardless of what he’d had to do, he had done what he could, and that made him possibly the strongest person she had ever known.

Which didn’t mean she had to be nearly as understanding of Madara.

She was an excellent diplomat, but even she couldn’t disguise her dislike entirely.

Except once, when she couldn’t hold in her sideways comment at Madara’s overly protective stance towards the Uchiha’s water supply in the face of Tobirama’s rolling shutoffs while they moved from the water to the reservoirs he had pioneered at the top of the cliffs. Then, as she snipped a retort at him, in Tobirama’s defense that she shouldn’t have had to make, she saw the way Madara actually flinched in the face of her ire.

It would have made her proud, just a little, but Tobirama was next to her, sitting close enough in the crowded, temporary council room for his armor to touch the fabric of her white kimono. And she felt him flinch.

It was nearly imperceptible, but it was there.

Clearly, Madara cared more about her opinion of him than she had imagined if her censure had echoed to Tobirama.

It was the last thing she wanted to do. Make it harder for him rather than easier. So she tried. Held it together and tried to be objective. Tried to put her dislike behind her. For Tobirama’s sake.

It was easier than she would have liked. Madara turned out to be annoyingly likable, even if it was just because he wanted so damn much to make her like him.

Firstly, his work and dedication towards the village was second only to Tobirama’s, even surpassing Hashirama’s.

Besides that, he was unfailingly polite (well, to her at least. It was annoyingly amusing to watch him trip over himself), had a vicious sense of humor equal with her own and an easy affection that flowed from him with the warmth of the fire his family was famous for.

He played the koto, same as her, taught her the Uchiha’s songs and learned the Whirlpool ones with enthusiasm.

It was annoying. She didn’t want to like him, not when he was tearing her brother apart, wanted to just be better at hiding her dislike.

(She even liked his little brother, Izuna, who had attempted to appoint himself as Tobirama’s best friend before Touka threatened to gut him, liked his cousin Hikaku, who had become Touka’s favorite person to pretend to pound into the ground after years of trying to do it for real. It was all. So. Annoying.)

She didn’t get what she wanted. She liked him. But it didn’t mean she thought he was in any way worthy of her brother.

Her brother who bore his grief with more grace than he should. Who bled, but tried to never let anyone, not even her, see.

He even fooled her sometimes. Sometimes, especially as over a year passed after his confession with no noticeable change, she would have weeks worth of interacting with him before remembering, oh, yes. He’s breaking. Had to remind herself to be gentle, not hurt him with casual talk. That just because he didn’t look to Madara, not for a second too long, not when he didn’t have too, that she knew half of Tobirama’s soul was ripped out.

And then she would see Madara frown at Tobirama’s retreating back, and have to leave, be so unspeakably angry because it was his own fault.

She didn’t know how. She didn’t know why, but Tobirama was the one who was so assured it was all hopeless when she wasn’t even sure if Madara knew. Knew that the pain she knew they shared was his own fault. That his soulmate was right there. Two feet in front of him, then three, then four, walking away. How could he not know?

Mito was half tempted to tell him. Sometimes, she would catch Tobirama gaze linger, longer than he surely wanted it to. Watch him tear it away. See Madara’s confusion and think maybe if she just told him, she could understand, get the whole story, give the whole story, try and make Madara understand what had taken her nearly a year.

Tobirama was so much more than a shinobi. Madara could love him, was meant to love him. How could he not?

But he didn’t.

And besides, that was out of the question. Tobirama had trusted her, her, with knowledge that had the power to destroy him. Had put his trust in her. She couldn’t break it.

She would not.

(But still, she wondered.)

Even though she watched the kept secret whittle away at Tobirama for years, until there was almost nothing left. He buried himself so far in his work, she thought she might never see him rest again, honestly couldn’t remember when she’d last seen him relax. Maybe Whirlpool? Maybe longer.

So, when it was her birthday, when she had emotional leverage, she was more than willing to throw it around. She insisted Tobirama come.

He obeyed, to her pleasure. He didn’t even wear his armor, wearing a formal hakama instead.

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

He sounded surprised despite Mito’s assurances his brother would come. After all, Tobirama had said he would come, so Mito knew he would.

“Mito invited me,” Tobirama said.

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

“I like Mito better,” Tobirama snarked. She hid her laugh behind her hand.

“You’re so mean, Tobirama!” whined her husband, one of the most powerful men in the world, as he lunged for his brother, in the process of taking off his sandals like a polite houseguest, nearly knocking him over as Hashirama tried to hug and cuddle Tobirama at the same time while he could get away with it.

“Idiot!” Tobirama barked as he tried to keep his feet under him with the added weight of his fully grown older brother.

Mito shook her head and didn’t bother to try and quell her smile as they grappled, one trying to escape, the other stubbornly holding on. But she did interseed, if only to save her walls from Hashirama being thrown through them. They had company, after all.

“Now, now husband, let Tobirama breathe.”

Hashirama turned to her, releasing Tobirama incidentally as he did so. But his grin, bright and wide and open, was blinding. Felt the love swell in him, full to bursting, overwhelming in her chest, and it was hard to tear her eyes away, but she managed.

Looked to her brother, and felt the most aching sense of deja vu. It had been years since they’d stood here. Tobirama in her genkan, Hashirama between them, both of them looking to her, looking nothing alike, but the same in the ways that mattered. She knew that now. Hashirama showed everything, and Tobirama showed nothing, but they both felt. They both loved. And she loved them. Differently, obviously, but so much more so than she could have hoped for the last time Tobirama had looked like a ghost come to call on them in their hallways.

And he was like a spirit, but not one to fear. Just that he was so hard to hold onto.

But she was getting lost herself, so she went to hug him instead. He was so much better at accepting them now.

“Tobirama. Thank you for coming.”

“Happy birthday,” he replied, sounding awkward, but it didn’t last.

Instead, Touka rounded the corner, no doubt having sensed Tobirama’s arrival, and promptly abducted him. Mito didn’t mind. He was in good hands.

When Madara arrived, almost half an hour later, even buzzed as she already was, saw how unsure he was of his welcome, even with Izuna grinning next to him, and decided to ignore everything tonight. To let them all just have a good time.

She hugged him, and didn’t think too hard about it, even as she kissed his cheek.

“Thank you for coming, Madara,” she said, letting him go.

He nodded looking more at his own feet then at her. He confessed, “Hashirama insisted.”

Of course he had. Her husband still thought he was subtle. “I know. It’s our secret though. He doesn’t think I know.”

And she winked, smiled at Izuna, and trusted them to not make too much of a mess of things, returned to her other guests.

She might have drank a little more than she should have, she and Hashirama both, but she didn’t care. Everyone was here. The whole support system she had built around them, a web of connection that was slowly but surely tying there new village together and it felt like victory. Like finally this was all possible.

Like maybe they were building something that would last. That this was what peace could be.

It felt like such a shattering surprise when it broke around her again.

Tobirama had only been sitting with them for a few minutes, she thought, and it was another moment. A moment where she forgot what he was going through all the time. Forgot that Madara had arrived with Izuna, sitting not five feet from them and they were talking about soulmates and it occurred to her too late as the conversation veered towards Hikaku, sitting next to Tobirama with a familiarity born of their many missions spent together, the danger of the conversation. That it might hurt him.

But changing the subject abruptly might draw more attention, not less.

She looked at Tobirama, just to be sure. He appeared unbothered, but she’d seen him appear unbothered with a debilitating wound, so she’d learned not to trust her first impression. She was just a little too buzzed to truly tell if he was upset, but she was relatively sure he didn’t mind, so she let herself relax.

“You’re still young, Hikaku. I’m sure you’ll find your match before long,” Mito added in, hoping to let the topic die.

Her husband had other plans.

“You’re a great young man! You’ll find them in no time!” he said, swaying a bit with the liquor.

She wasn’t sure how he’d gotten so drunk so fast, but it was a celebration. She didn’t fault him in the least. It had been months, years, since they had anything to celebrate. They could let loose, just this once.

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

“No, no, none of that! I’m just Hashirama tonight,” he said, with his characteristic charm. “It’s just about being honest; with yourself and with your soulmate. Take Mito and me! Half a conversation and we just knew.”

This was in no way letting the conversation die. And more-

Hashirama couldn’t hold his tongue at the best of times, and sometimes, at moments like this, he forgot what a soft target Tobirama was for all of his hard exterior. It wasn’t often anymore, not since the peace that she could remember, but she could see it coming.

Casual cruelty between siblings was normal. It didn’t make it any better.

She tried to abort, took his drink out of his gesturing hand before he spilled it and said, “Now, now, no need to bore Hikaku wi-“

But he blew right past her, at his very worst. Mito felt the calm before the storm for just an instant, the moment he didn’t even pause for her to think for just a moment.

“Now, Tobi here, 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.”

And then he snorted. Giggled, as Tobirama did his not-flinch and looked down at his drink.

Mito was suddenly hyper aware of the Uchiha at her back, well within hearing distance and felt dread dance down her spine.

Oh gods. Hashirama didn’t know. Didn’t know about Madara and Tobirama and rejection, a word no one said but everyone feared, but Mito did. Could feel Madara just behind them watching. And saying nothing.

She took Hashirama’s arm, the one on the table and squeezed it. Hard. Hard enough to hurt her, but she didn’t care.

“Hashirama!” she scolded him, not caring if anyone heard.

“What?” he asked, and looked to her like he didn’t understand. Looked to his brother like he was surprised. Like he was shocked that Tobirama was even hurt at all, as if anyone wouldn’t be hurt. “Wha- Tobi, I didn’t mean it like that!”

No one said anything. No one, not even Mito knew what to say, but-

Tobirmara downed his drink.

“You’re an idiot,” he said, sounding fond. Like he always did when Hashirama did something stupid, cruel, and needed reassurance that even with it all, Tobirama still loved him anyways.

She hated it. Hated it even worse when Tobirama came around the table to her and kissed her forehead (he was never free with his affection. It only reaffirmed how much he was hurting), and told her, “Happy birthday.”

She would have had to be fully blind to not see the way he looked at Madara, his soulmate, before leaving.

“Shit,” Hashirama said, and went to stand, but her hand on his arm, like steel, stopped him as he protested, “Tobi- I need to go after him.”

“Sit down.”

Mito was fuming. She hadn’t been this angry before since she was very small, and certainly never at Hashirama, but- this was supposed to be fun. Safe.

Tobirama hadn’t worn his armor. Hadn’t thought he’d need it. Not in her home. Not around family.

“You’ve done plenty. Let him lick his wounds in peace,” she demanded, her eye’s closed to fight the urge to let her eyebrow twitch. They would be having words later, while he was suffering from his hangover if she had her way. “You’re going to stay right there until you’ve sobered up. Hikaku, be a dear and get my husband some water.”

Hikaku vanished as Hashirama gave up, and she couldn’t help it. She had to know.

She looked to Madara. Found him watching her blankly, face unreadable, and tried not to be bitterly disappointed (for Tobirama, not herself) as he didn’t move.

The turmoil churning in her chest from Hashirama drew her attention back to him. She didn’t even really notice when Madara left. Her soulmate needed her.

He always did.

She knew, knew, he hadn’t meant to hurt his brother. Knew that Tobirama had always, since they were too young to know better, seemed invincible to Hashirama. Knew because he’d told her so, the first time she’d insisted he apologize to Tobirama for a cruel thing he’d said.

He hadn’t even known what she was talking about.

“Oh that? That was nothing. It’s not like he minded.”

“Of course he minded. You said he was heartless.”

“That was a joke! Besides, it would take more than words to upset Tobirama. Trust me.”

“... He’s right. You’re an idiot. Apologize anyways.”

But it didn’t make it better. Especially since she couldn’t tell him half of why it was so awful.

He sensed it though. That night, after all the guests had left, and the last of the dishes and decorations had been stashed away; after they had dressed and readied for bed, and they slid beneath the sheets without a word (not at all the ending she had expected for her birthday, but she was too distressed and conflicted to even be disappointed).

He stayed to his side, more than aware that she was mad at him, which she appreciated, but she needed the comfort right now. She rolled into him, reached across to hold him, and rested her head on his chest so she could listen to his heartbeat.

She didn’t have to tell him to apologize anymore. Knew he would do it without her prompting.

And when she next saw Tobirama, something was clearly different. He was lighter somehow. She wasn’t sure if it was Hashirama’s apology, was almost sure it wasn’t.

She only needed to see him and Madara together once to at the very least suspect. Twice to know for certain.

She had to excuse herself from the room to stop them, or anyone, from seeing how conflicted it left her. On the one hand, she wanted to laugh, wanted to weep with joy, was happy because Tobirama seemed happy for once. On the other hand, she didn’t- she wasn’t-

Madara had left Tobirama hanging for years, hurt him, possibly more than anyone else had. He didn’t get to look effervescent, incandescently pleased, just because he’d decided to now, finally, realized that Tobirama was worth loving.

She let herself take a day, drag Hashirama out of his office (an easy feat. Usually it was the other way around), take him for a walk around the village they’d built. Let his presence, his joy, soothe her as they met with their people, happy and at peace.

He didn’t ask, just kept his arm around her all day. He was wonderful like that.

When they made love that night, he made absolutely sure that she could think about nothing else.

He had his faults, but she loved her husband. The next morning over breakfast, she knew he wouldn’t pry. Knew he would be patient. So, she let herself ask for his advice.

“If you had two… friends,” she said after deliberating on the word to use. Madara was a friend, she supposed, or close enough to one for the details not to matter.

Hashirama put down his tea to give her his full attention.

“Two friends,” he said, nodding for her to continue.

She smiled at him for his eager indulgence and went on. “Two friends. One of which was cruel to the other. Really hurt them. But the other just forgave them for it,” she waved her hand. “Just like that. Like it didn’t matter.”

He nodded seriously. And she sighed, because, “Would you forgive them? The friend that was cruel?”

Hashirama hummed and sat back. His fingers drummed the tatami the way they did when he was giving something serious thought.

“How much do you know about the situation?” he asked, looking at the ceiling as he thought.

She opened her mouth to answer, to tell him that he knew all about it only to realize that she didn’t. Didn’t know much about it at all really. Only that Tobirama had been hurt.

Was that enough?

“Not much,” she admitted, “Just enough to know who was the wronged party.”

“Huh,” he said and sat up again, draping his arms instead over his crossed legs as he looked at her with wide, earnest eyes she loved, “Well, if it were me, I would try and find out as much as I could about both sides before I came to a decision.”

He was right. Which told her exactly what she needed to do. Having a plan eased the knot in her chest, and she smiled at him, relieved. It was answered by one of his own.

She kissed him rather decidedly before sending him off to work.

She would still wait, she thought, until Tobirama was ready to tell her that he and Madara had worked things out. She could wait, and be patient and have him come to her on his own terms before she asked.

But she would ask. Not Tobirama, but she and Madara had a long conversation coming.

She was almost looking forward to it.

And besides, it didn’t take as long as she’d feared. Just a month later, Tobirama knocked on her door minutes after Hashirama left.

He wasn’t alone. Madara stood at his shoulder, looking blatantly nervous, which was uncharacteristic for the Uchiha.

She raised an eyebrow at the pair of them, but decided to treat this as if it was as normal as Tobirama showing up alone for tea.

So, she smiled. She let him in with a hug, like always. She took them to the dining area in the courtyard with the koi pond and the maple tree, like always. Made him tea, let him sit, waiting for him to begin, like always.

He cleared his throat before beginning, a dead give away that he was uncomfortable.

“As you know, Madara is my soulmate,” he said, but then faltered, looking to the man next to him.

Madara didn’t say anything, just reached over to lay his hand on Tobirama’s back, and looked back, looked at Tobirama with so much love, affection, adoration.

Dammit. Mito’s eyes welled up with tears and dammit, she wasn’t going to cry. She wasn’t.

But then Tobirama looked back, leaned back into the hand. His shoulders eased. He smiled back and when he looked to her, well.

It was the most open, vulnerable and brave face she’d ever seen him make, and yep. That was it. She was crying. Dammit!

She nearly knocked over the table as she got around it to hug her brother. Hugged him tightly, and buried her face in his hair so she could whisper, ask into his ear alone, “Are you happy?”

She felt him nod, so she pulled back, looked between them, to Tobirama, face unreadable again, and to Madara, who still looked nervous, which was annoyingly cute.

“I’m so happy for you. Congratulations.”

Neither of them mentioned it as she used her sleeve to dry her tears, instead shared a glance between themselves, relief palpable, and she almost, almost felt bad about the way the doubt hadn’t left her.

Tobirama seemed happy. Had even admitted it to her, but still.

“Tobirama doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

He had clearly forgiven Madara. But Mito wasn’t sure she could.

Forgive him for occupying so much of Hashirama’s attention, certainly, easily. Forgive him for the war, and his part in perpetuating it, maybe, maybe not. But forgive him for hurting Tobirama? Never. Especially not if it was deliberate.

Which she wouldn’t ask here. No. This was their moment. Not hers, and she wouldn’t. She would wait, serve them tea, and get the information she needed to make further judgement later.

So, they had tea. At first, it was awkward. Then they started talking, and within minutes it was like Mito had disappeared entirely.

“If we don’t give Elder Shagura what he wants, he won’t support the ceding of the north quarter to the Chou clan and their smiths. Which means we’d have to reroute the canals. Again."

"We could just tell him to shove it up his ass."

Tobirama tilted his head at his soulmate, face blank, but eyes wicked and said, "Appealing, but likely counterproductive."

Huffing, Madara replied, "We shouldn't pander to him just because now he wants to be impolitic."

"Injudicious," Tobirama corrected, to which Madara rolled his eyes.

"Idiotic," he quipped back wryly.

Tobirama looked down and tried to hide his smile by taking a sip of tea. "Yes. That."

And Madara smiled back, more than pleased with himself for making his soulmate smile.

Oh. Gods. They really were soulmates. The thought made her giggle.

They both looked to her in askance, like they’d forgotten she was in the room entirely. She waved them off with an indulgent smile of her own, “Nothing, nothing. It’s just, you two really are soulmates. I couldn’t see it before.”

Then they both blushed. Looked to each other, and then down, embarrassed.

She let them off the hook, and asked, “Have you considered speaking with Shagura’s wife Hitaru?”

Tobirama cleared his throat. “That could work but-”

Madara rolled his eyes again, interrupted him, and then they were off. Mito sat back and let herself be ignored. Let their conversation wash over her.

They were adorable. If her marriage to Hashirama was any indication, she had a weakness for adorable things. And these two, adorable, were weakening her resolve by the moment.

But over her years as matriarch of the Senju, her husband had looked to her as an equal partner, but not all his family had. She had had to earn her position of respect, and as such, her spine had turned to steel. Her resolve never disappeared entirely.

When tea was finished, she walked them out.

“Madara,” she said before he could leave, “May I speak to you alone for a moment?”

She couldn’t read the look that passed between Madara and Tobirama, but eventually Madara nodded.

“I’ll see you for dinner?” Madara asked.

Tobirama hesitated. “I have a lot of work to get done.”

But Madara just shrugged. “Then we’ll eat it in your office. Curry alright?”

Tobirama nodded, and it was only her years of knowing him let Mito know that he was… grateful. He left her and Madara on the engawa, making his way down her tree lined path, under the gateway to the main road before disappearing.

Mito waited until he was well and truly out of view before looking at Madara.

But he wasn’t looking back. Instead, his eyes still lingered on where Tobirama had gone, a compass hand, pulled undeniably towards his north.

She laid her hand on his arm.

He turned to look at her so quickly she thought he’d give himself whiplash.

“I have to know,” she began. “How long have you known?”

Stiffening, Madara’s brows furrowed. “Since your birthday. Why?”

Mito couldn’t help but let out a breath, one hand coming up to clench in a fist before her chest, let go of at least a little of the anger and resentment she felt on Tobirama’s behalf.

Not all of it, though.

“Tobirama has known for years. He told me a year and a half ago and gave the impression that you had done something to make him absolutely sure that he wouldn’t be welcomed. That he’d be or had already been rejected.”

Madara flinched, full bodied and painful, he opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn’t seem to find the words. He gave up after a moment, and looked down, ashamed, but that wasn’t her point. She wasn’t trying to make him feel guilty, not when it was clear he was already struggling with it. It wasn’t her place to hurt him that way.

So, she reached the same hand than had been holding herself together out to gently cup the side of his face not obscured by his hair. Drew his eyes, scared in a way she hadn’t seen them before, to hers.

“The past is the past. We can go nowhere but forward, but…” she trailed off, took her hand back, “I just, I don’t need to tell you to be careful with him, do I? He’s been hurt enough.”

He swallowed, looked down, and nodded.

She nodded back, for herself, as he wasn’t looking. She fixed that by starting, “So,” and he looked back to her, “That said, you have work to get back to, and so do I.”

He nodded again, an adorably shy smile on his face. Sage, these two.

“Well, go on. Besides, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of time to talk again soon.”

Because we're family now. She didn't say it. Wasn't sure it was true, even if Madara clearly heard the implication if his answering smile was any indication.

It was clear she wasn’t the only one with doubts.

“Of course he’s not family yet. That bastard has to earn it,” Touka said.

It was girls’ night. Mito used to have them with Satsu. Then Touka had joined them. Then Satsu had left, but Touka stayed. Every Tuesday that they could manage it, they locked themselves in Mito’s private parlor, drank sake, ate take out, and talked.

“He’s Tobirama’s soulmate,” Mito said. She couldn’t quite affect Touka’s easy slouch, the way the other woman couldn’t be bothered to even sit, instead having laid down, stuffed the cushion she was supposed to sit on under her armpit, and perched herself up on her elbow. Instead, she knelt primly, too used to the dichotomy to even be bothered anymore.

“So? Being soulmates doesn't automatically grant admittance in this family," said Touka, pointing at Mito with her chopsticks in emphasis.

Mito blinked.

"It did for me," she said.

Touka snorted. "Only because Tobi-kun vouched for you. I didn't even like you for six months."

Mito didn’t know how she felt about that beyond surprise. "I never would have guessed," she said mildly, taking another dainty bite.

Touka just shrugged.

"Still," Mito continued, "if all it takes is Tobirama's say so, surely Madara would get the same leniency?"

"Nope. Not in this case. Tobirama's clearly biased," Touka said decidedly and downed her entire glass of sake.

Mito supposed that was true, but still. Regardless of Touka’s hard-lining, Tobirama seemed genuinely... happy. Content. They weren’t words she had ever associated with her brother. He always had such a heavy sadness to him. Hidden at first. But there. Just below the surface.

And just over the last week, she had seen it ease somewhat. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to do anything to jeopardize that trajectory.

So, she would wait, and get more information. If Madara continued to be committed to keeping Tobirama happy, then she would, after years of resisting Hashirama’s insistence for her to do so, she would bring Madara into their family. Insomuch as it would make Tobira-

She paused, and nearly dropped her sake.

An ache, sharp and hollow, formed in her own chest, build, worming, digging and writhing until it burned.

It had been a long time since she’d felt this kind of pain from Hashirama. Not since the war. Not since the peace.

“Mito?” Touka asked, already sitting up, reaching for her glaive not three feet from her.

“It’s alright,” Mito said. This wasn’t a physical pain. Hashirama wasn’t in any danger. Just hurting. She stood all the same, “I’m sorry, though. I think I need to go.”

“Yeah, sure,” Touka said, “I’ll come with you.”

“No,” said Mito, harsher than she meant to, “No, no, that’s alright. I’m fairly sure I know what happened. Why don’t you go find Tobirama.”

Touka scowled, probably biting back a curse, but nodded and left.

Hashirama and Tobirama rarely fought outright, almost never. Not since the awful one about the Uchiha years ago. Rather, they came more like her birthday. Hashirama would open his mouth and swallow his foot, carelessly cruel in the way she only saw him be with his brother, and then Tobirama would leave, Hashirama would feel guilty, and then harass Tobirama with incessant apologies until Tobirama got tired of saying it didn’t matter, then got tired of accepting the apologies, then finally losing his temper and telling Hashirama to fuck off.

This one, though. This one must have been bad.

She found her husband in his office, staring out the window.

Sighing, she walked over to him and wrapped her arms around his chest. Held him in silence, buried her face in his solid shoulders. One of his hands came up to grip hers. Clung to her as he, the Hokage, possibly the strongest shinobi on the planet, leaned back to brace himself against her. Let her support him.

“Am I a bad brother?” he asked in a whisper filled with so much pain and self doubt that it ached in her own heart.

She kissed his shoulder and told him the truth. “If you’re asking, then you know you need to try harder to be better.”

He sighed, and seemed to deflate in her arms.

“He said that I think he’s like our father was. I don’t-  He’s a thousand times the man our father could ever be. How could he even think that?” He sounded so distraught. It matched her own hurting heart.

“Have you told him that?”

“I didn’t think I would have to!” he said, jolting like he meant to turn, but she didn’t let him just yet, held him harder so he would focus on this, not on her.

“Well, then,” she said into his back. “You’ll just have to do that next time you see him. Just… remember, he’s not as invincible as he seems. Your opinion is important to him.”

“But why?” he sounded genuinely confused.

“Oh, Hashirama,” she said and stepped back, pulling him around to face her by the hand he hadn’t dropped. She used her other hand to turn his face and make him look at her. “You’re his Anija. He loves you.”

He only sighed again, but she could feel, just slightly, the ache between them ease, as he rested his forehead against hers.

And just breathed.

After that, they all felt like they were in an odd sort of stasis, running in place. None of them, not Mito certainly, but she suspected neither Hashirama or Tobirama, or Madara for that matter, seemed clear on where to go from there.

Years become mountains that were hard to climb, Mito knew. Resentments become steep and sharp cliffs to be chipped away at. Pitfalls hid in the minutiae of the everyday, shared meals a minefield, tread cautiously. They all had a long way to go, farther than even she had realized, before they could be considered a united front, a family, all four of them.

But she wanted it. She knew they did too.

Maybe Madara most of all. He orbited around Tobirama like his whole life depended on it, like he had been waiting forever for just this. Maybe it did. Maybe he had been.

But the real world didn’t stop turning just because their family was in limbo, and just six months later, Mito found herself summoned to the Capital. With a request, polite but firm, that she bring the Uchiha clan head with her.

Hashirama was hesitant. He was still wary of doing anything that might upset Tobirama. Sending his soulmate away for months, so soon after they’d found each other, would be upsetting for anyone.

Especially, as Madara and Tobirama were also at the table for the discussion, very carefully not looking at each other.

“Can’t we send Izuna?” he asked her. Both Tobirama and Madara went to answer, but she held up a hand.

“My uncle is not one to be ignored. He is the Daimyo, and right now we need his continued support.”

It was never pleasant, being the bearer of bad news. But she also knew that whatever her uncle wanted to speak to her about in person, not as a niece but as the wife and right hand of the Hokage, and Madara as the co-founder of Konoha, would be serious news indeed. He was not a man for frivolity, a trait he shared with Mito’s mother, who passed it on to her. Whatever he wanted, it was important. And it was important that Konoha treat it as such for the sake of the country’s stability.

After just a moment, Hashirama relented and nodded.

Nobody asked if Tobirama could also accompany them. To leave the village with just Hashirama to defend it and keep the peace would be foolish.

Besides, Tobirama ran most of the bureaucracy personally. He was more important to the village running smoothly than Hashirama himself. Even the week long missions he occasionally demanded caused more chaos than Hashirama was willing to bear without his younger brother (meaning that Tobirama took on those missions with the understanding that he was not getting rid of his work at home, just postponing it, and in most cases amplifying it several fold as disaster broke out without him).

Mito was well aware of his role, though. Had made sure, especially in light of other revelations, that Tobirama knew just how important he was to the village.

So, he knew, as well as they did, that he couldn’t leave. By the mulish crease in his brow, he didn’t like it. But neither did he complain or object regardless.

Duty was a burden they had all been built to bear.

They adjourned the meeting without another word. The next morning, just before dawn, Hashirama saw her down to the gates.

Madara was already there, as well as the shinobi that would accompany them, including Touka, scowling at the world (but mostly the rising sun), Benjiro, Uchiha Tsubame, Shiranui Genkei, and one of the Aburame she hadn’t met yet, likely to act as their scout. And Tobirama, standing beside Madara.

She could tell that the quiet, somber nod that passed between them meant as much to them as Hashirama’s kiss goodbye meant to her.

They were half-way to the Capital before trouble, abrupt and violent found them.

She had only Madara’s quick eyes to thank for not falling below as the ground shook and cracked open beneath her. She didn’t even see him move before he was pulling her away, up into the trees, barking orders.

“You alright?” he asked. She nodded, and he let her go.

Her hands flew into seals as she drew the seal in her mind’s eye. When she slammed her hand on the branch, the symbols flew from it, black and inking, but they quickly glowed into a physical disk she could stand on, connected to her intent. It flew beneath her as she leapt into the fray, finding her feet and catching her as she landed where the ground used to be.

Two of their opponents, standing out in burgundy and brown, ran through six hand seals in tandem. A barrage of small, sharp rocks flew at her face.

She pulled a scroll out of her bag. As it unflurred in front of her, the seal within activated, forming a barrier. It stopped the rocks dead.

Movement to her left made her move.

She leapt back, her seal disk under her, just dodging a kunai swung towards her throat.

The hand that held it was fast. Mito had just enough time to see his face, with its oddly brittle and cracked skin, before she had to dodge again. Her seal disk followed her, keeping up and meeting her hand as she back-handspringed out of the way.

He tried to follow, but he was matched by the shriek and sparks of steel on steel.

Madara was in between them. The enemy nin was met with the Uchiha’s loaded kanton in his face.

Mito didn’t look to see if he lived, instead turned to the rest of the fray.

They were outnumbered, but had chosen their entourage well.

Tsubame was fast, very fast, easily pushing back her opponent with sharingan spinning. The Aburame and Shiranui had moved to the perimeter, slowly but surely forcing the enemy into the open, uneven ground their own doton had created. Benjiro had summoned enough water to make it a mudfield, slowing those in the clearing down, but not enough.

Three of them began sealing in sequence. Who knew what they planned to unleash?

They wouldn’t get the chance. Mito leapt to a tree, felled in the chaos, its roots asunder but still alive. She pulled out another scroll, and slammed it to the trunk, quietly thanking Hashirama for his endless patience as she developed it.

The roots of the tree flew out, the force of the chakra release a physical shockwave as the enemy ninja found themselves encircled, strangled by the unforgiving wood.

It didn’t hold all of their enemies for long, but it let them pick off enough to more than even the odds.

The rest of the fight was over in moments. Aside from Shiranui, who seemed to have sprained his wrist, they came out relatively unscathed.

“Mito,” Madara called her over to where he was standing over the last enemy he had killed.

She had already released her disk, needing all her focus for her last seal, so she carefully picked her way across the rocks, avoiding the mud as much as she could, to see.

The body was damning.

“Tazuna Clan,” Madara said.

“Tazuna Clan? From the Land of Earth?” Touka said, turning over her own felled opponent with the butt of her Naginata, and found the same cracks running across their skin.

Mito and Madara shared a look as the reasons for their summons became immediately clear.

“We need to hurry,” Mito said.

They picked up the pace and made it to the Capital in almost record time.

The bustle and majesty of the city was usually something to behold, but they had better things to do then ogle, especially as her uncle’s men met them at the gate and rushed them straight to the palace.

Mito had known the Daimyo all her life. In addition to being her mother’s favorite brother, he was also Mito’s godfather.

She had never seen him so serious.

War might be nothing but a haze on the horizon, but in their world, that moon would always rise.

But the Daimyo was committed, as she was, as Madara was, to hold it off as long as possible.

Thankfully, the envoy from the Land of Earth seemed to be as well.

“On the surface, anyways,” Madara muttered once they were ensconced in the rooms set aside for them.

“You think them insincere?” she asked.

He harrumphed. “I think the Nagao Clan has been vying for Earth Daimyo’s position ever since the family split into branches. Either they’re wanting to cover their internal cracks by displaying outward aggression, or they’ve reconciled and are trying to hide it. Either way, we shouldn’t trust them any farther than we have to.”

He was right. Her uncle agreed. It didn’t mean that it wouldn’t take weeks of circle talking to all come to the same conclusion. No one really wanted to do anything. Not now. Not yet.

It was a long and tedious dance, only made better momentarily by the letters that Madara’s hawks brought with more speed and regularity that she would have thought possible.

His hawks were really something. It was no wonder he doted on them so.

Hashirama’s letters were wonderful, full of how much he loved and missed her, how his days had been, how much he loved and missed her, how the village was, how much he loved and missed her, his advice and opinions on her work, and, in case he hadn’t mentioned it, how much he loved and missed her.

She didn’t know what Tobirama’s letters to Madara said, just that they each made him smile, such a mix of love and relief and sadness and frustration she thought he might cry.

She wasn’t the only one desperate to go home.

The kinship that revelation brought about was strong and surprising. It wasn’t just that Madara was bright, fierce, and powerful in his defence of their village, that his commentary both during the meetings and after displayed a point of view in alliance with her own (along with the biting wit he shared with his soulmate). No, it was also that they clearly both wanted the same thing, for the same reason.

More than allies, they were representatives of the same village.

(More than friends, they loved the same family. She was more and more sure of it with every moment she spent with Madara.)

After three weeks of long and tedious work, it finally paid off. They made peace terms, signed treaties, all sat in a circle and said words that meant nothing really, only that they would all be patient for now.

Waiting. Watching. This early action had been a sloppy mistake by Earth. They had forfeited the initiative and the element of surprise.

If they had killed her, or Madara for that matter… 

But, they hadn’t.

Instead, Konoha would be vigilant. Had the advantage of knowing about the threat ahead of time.

And she knew for certain now of her uncle’s support. For all that he had been unsure about the idea of having all his ninja clans in an alliance, but also living in one place, a possible counterbalance to his own authority, oaths of loyalty aside, he seemed to now, finally, fully stand behind them.

“Konohagakure will have my unmitigated support.”

He even sent three of his own personal guards to indicate, both metaphorically and physically if necessary, that they were under his protection on journey back.

Family, nepotism, she didn’t care. She was just grateful to be going home.

After the stillness of the palace, long hours of people keeping their voices lowered politely and endless walks through the gardens with the envoy’s two daughters, the streets of the Capital as they made their way out seemed even more jarring than usual. Fishmongers shouted, spice merchants haggled, even the monks jangled their wears to the passing shinobi. Their entourage kept them at a distance, her and Madara’s noble status having people bowing out of their way, a bubble of space around them on the crowded streets, but that couldn’t stop the noise. The sooner they could get back on the road, the better.

Which is why she was more than a little surprised, maybe even annoyed when Madara veered off from the group without a word.

She shared a look with their guards, but sighed and followed him.

“Where are we going,” she asked.

“It won’t take long.”

"Madara." She did not whine. She was a Princess of Whirlpool. The Hokage's wife. "I'm tired. The road is long, and it's already past midday. Is this really necessary?"

“Yes,” he said, and strode off with even firmer steps.

Mito could practically hear Touka roll her eyes behind them.

Nonetheless, they followed Madara down the winding streets, passed storefronts and restaurants, tourists and visiting dignitaries giving way to locals as the roads became narrower alleys until Madara ducked into one without warning.

Looking towards their confused and impatient guards, she just sighed, and said, “Wait here.”

She followed him inside. It was dark, and immediately, the smell was like an assault, heady and spiced, choking with the weight of it. The exhaustion that had been weighing on her for days called even more keenly as she was enveloped in the space.

“Uchiha-sama, welcome,” the clerk at the desk said as she bowed.

Madara nodded and walked to speak with her as Mito looked around.

Incense. Rows after rows of them. Sticks and cones from all over the continent. There were coils in a corner and tables with dishes full of the powders, colorful with neat labeled for the scents they carried.

“I have your order,” the clerk said, drawing Mito’s attention. The woman pulled a large wooden box out from under the counter.

“Thank you, Fumiko-san,” Madara said as he laid his hand on top of the box. “Have you thought more about my offer?”

“I have. My nephew Shuuichirou is joining a caravan to the Land of Stone. They plan to waylay on the return in your new village. If all can be made ready by then, he will remain there and set up a branch store. It will be an honor to do business in Konohagakure,” she said and bowed.

Madara actually returned the gesture, before placing an envelope on the counter. The clerk took it, and pulled out a surprising amount of money to add to her till.

“I would be happy to cover your nephew’s moving expenses as well,” Madara said.

“No, no,” she said, her lined face crinkling with a smile. “Your contribution has been more than sufficient.”

Nodding, Madara took the box and turned back to Mito. He didn’t say anything as he walked back towards her.

“Ready?” he asked, as though she were the cause of their delay, even though Mito hadn’t moved from the doorway. As if he wasn’t the only reason they were here. She raised an eyebrow at him, as she nodded.

He grinned back, unrepentant as they left.

“So, what was that all about?” Touka asked as they made their way back to the main road.

“Incense,” Madara answered. He looked sideways at Mito, hesitated, as if he wasn’t sure whether or not he should continue, but in the end he said, “For Tobirama.”

Oh.

Aloewood. And ginger lily. The box’s label said so, small but clear now that she was looking for it.

But it was so much more than that. It was the clashing scents, jarring and missing, but so intrinsic to who her brother was. They had been missing from his alter, from his home for so long that the smell hand nearly been replaced entirely, left behind, harder to leave then even the grave, a pillar of stone with Itama and Kawarama’s names carved in line with all of the others. They, the Senju, even she and Hashirama had left them behind. But not Tobirama. The grief he had carried, always alone, was one of the first things she had ever learned about him.

But maybe, not so alone anymore.

Madara carried the box the entire way home. He refused the storage scroll Mito offered him, even as his hands blistered through his gloves, unwilling to entrust even her with his burden.

Or perhaps it was his penance. For his family, for the part they had played in their deaths, for the tear in his soulmate’s heart.

Whatever the reason, looking at that box, she couldn’t help but understand that he was trying.

And when they finally, finally, made it home, she let Hashirama sweep her off her feet, exuberant as the ache of worry and stress finally eased just a little. But out of the corner of her eye, she watched Madara. And Tobirama.

Her brother took the box, confused, until he read the label. Then he looked up to his soulmate, eyes wide. Mito thought she could see him shake, just a little, even from here, as Madara scratched his cheek, embarrassed. He opened his mouth to explain, but didn’t get the chance.

Her forever poised and reserved brother-in-law reached out, grabbed Madara by the front of his Uchiha blacks, and hauled him over, faster than she could see, to crash their lips together.

Her husband squawked, but Mito could only hide her grin in his collarbone.

It seemed she had another brother. It was about time.