There were mornings when the gray mists hung heavy over the Uchiha Clan encampment. It brought the forest shadows to life, a nip in the air that sparked bonfires. Bonfires always meant stories, families gathered around the dancing flames to watch the clan storytellers weave their best tales.
On one such morning, Uchiha Naori woke with a buzz of energy in her step. The rare cup of coffee her parents allowed her wasn't the cause of it, nor was the bonfire—which people were already preparing for with gleaming eyes.
Hers was a far simpler joy. Today, Naori turned six years old and her parents had promised her a brand new set of kunai. There was a package of ink and calligraphy quills stashed away, too. Her parents had hidden it quite well, for her birthday surprise.
Throwing on a mantle, trousers, and sandals, she flung herself out of the tent. It was only after she'd greeted Hikaku, who took a look at her and burst into laughter, that she paused to inspect her hair.
"When was the last time you brushed it?" he said. "Last year?" And then, before she had the chance to say something particularly sharp, he added, "Happy Birthday."
It was a poor effort to save his own hide, but she bore it with a tempered sideways glare. She'd seen many of the older Uchiha do it to their friends, too. Unlike the others who'd labored under the glare, Hikaku only grinned back at her. She blamed it on her round face and hoped, in future years, she would mature enough to pull it off.
"Let me," said Hikaku, when nothing immediately happened, procuring a hair tie from seemingly nowhere.
She turned to give him access to the shoulder-length waves, which he combed out with gentle fingers and braided. Because he was her friend, and because she knew Hikaku was fond of braids, she didn't wrinkle her nose. Naori didn't like her hair in a braid. The weight against her neck was off-putting.
The rest of the day could have gone on as typical for Naori, plus birthday allowances.
She would have wandered into the forest for some play training with Hikaku, raided the food supply for a couple extra rolls. That afternoon, she might have sat down to practice her calligraphy, before she was dragged out to the bonfire by her eager parents.
Perhaps, the clan threw her a surprise song and dance. Then again, maybe none of that happened. Maybe she listed around the clan all day, bored out of her mind. One would be free to imagine as they wished, because it didn't matter in the end.
What happened next was most certainly important, though. It also wasn't part of Naori's normal day.
A dry voice spoke behind her. "Hello, Hikaku-kun, Naori-chan—and happy birthday!"
The two children whirled around. They hadn't heard anyone approaching.
Quick words on Uchiha Masami would be something like: she was strange.
That didn't really begin to cover it, though, so one must unfortunately look deeper. Deeper than the impossible tangle of dark hair, or the pallid quality of her face, or the razor-edged grin that made everyone suspect she was permanently laughing at an inside joke that no one was actually on the inside of. Deeper, even, than the graceful way she didn't so much walk, as she floated over the ground.
How she married Tajima was something of clan legend. At some point, a young Masami had seen Tajima, gruff and grouchy and brooding, and said, "That's it. He's the one." The rest was history. It was a blurry, fuzzy sort of history that seemed to always be there, but no one quite thought about it.
Masami was Tajima's wife. Fact. No one remembered Masami's parents. Also a fact.
She was undeniably an Uchiha, though, proven by the Sharingan eyes she had no compunction flashing at people who irritated her.
The moral of the story was that there were no quick words for Uchiha Masami. She was, after all, the mother of Uchiha Madara. The clan didn't know much about little Madara, though, so no one was caught up over that detail yet.
So, when Masami had crossed the encampment, weaving between tents, and stopped directly behind Naori and Hikaku, a great many of the adults had ceased working to watch. That was how Naori found herself under the scrutiny of the Clan Head's wife, along with a sizable crowd. She very much wished she wasn't under that attention.
"Hello, Masami-sama," she said politely, nothing if not a girl of propriety.
There was a bundle in Masami's arms. It drew Naori's attention for the same reason any bundle, or package, drew a child's attention on their birthday. The bundle moved, and Naori realized it wasn't a gift. A pudgy hand waved in the air, followed by a soft coo.
Masami was smiling, almost unconsciously.
"Would you like to see?" she said to Naori, gray eyes fixed on the girl. "He's only three months old. So small, hmm?"
She knelt, holding out the bundle slightly, to allow the morning light to fall over the baby's face. Naori and Hikaku crowded around him. He was paler than any baby Naori had ever seen. She was almost afraid he was sick, but Masami surely wouldn't be smiling like that, if her child was ill.
"I need to speak with our esteemed Clan Head," said Masami, in the tone of voice Naori noticed adults often got when they were irritated with something ridiculous. She looked imploringly at the two children. Naori's heart sunk. Adults only did that when they were going to ask for something, and it was her birthday. "Can you look after Madara-chan for me? It will only be for a while."
Naori looked at the quiet, pale baby.
"You'd be like his big sister," said Masami. "I know it's not the birthday gift you'd ask for, but—"
"It's fine," said Naori quickly. Babysitting wasn't something she fancied for her birthday, but she always wanted a little sibling. She tried not to be obvious, but somehow she doubted much alluded Masami.
The baby was unexpectedly heavy in her arms. He was also warm and smelled of his mother, along with the accompanying baby scent that all babies seemed to have. Naori didn't know if it was a kind of powder, or if babies actually smelled like that.
"Keep a close eye on him," said Masami, smiling down at them. There were laugh lines around her eyes. "I'll come and pick him up later."
"Bye, Masami-sama," said Naori, sparing her a respectful nod, before returning her attention to the baby. Little Madara was babbling quietly.
Once Masami was well and gone, out of earshot, Hikaku leaned in to look closer at Madara. He was frowning.
"Guess this means we can't go into the forest, huh?" he said, giving one of Madara's chubby cheeks a gentle poke. "Oh, look, I think he sees my finger."
They spent the majority of the day safely inside the encampment, though Naori and Hikaku couldn't resist straying into the forest a little. Naori kept Madara held snuggly to her chest, pointing out objects to him, while a good majority of the adult Uchiha had abandoned their duties to follow the children around with varying expressions of stressed concern. Each was ready to leap at the sign of Madara being dropped by accident.
Naori showed Madara her calligraphy set, when she unwrapped it. She walked him around the building bonfire. She told him about the Uchiha and her studies and her family, and how she'd always wanted a little brother. In truth, she hadn't cared if she had a brother or a sister, but she wanted Madara to think she'd specifically wanted him—despite the fact he assuredly would not remember anything she told him.
Giving him up felt something like abandoning family. Naori had teared up when Madara burst into sobs, and Masami carefully did not say it was because the boy was starving.
"D'you think Masami-sama will let me babysit again?"
"You do continuous strokes. It's sort of like a kata, but with brushes."
Madara was sitting up. He'd grown a thick mop of hair in the past six months that stuck up in all directions, no matter how Naori tried to tame it. To her concern, he'd also taken to trying to crawl up any solid object and stand. It looked almost comical on his bent, frog-like legs.
Lack of experience in all things babies left Naori at something of a loss for a good while. She'd wanted to babysit Madara more, but didn't exactly know ihowi to interact with a baby. Or what to do with him. There were little rattle toys, but they always felt patronizing. Madara was a baby, true—but Naori wasn't about to go around waving a baby rattle for him. Instead, she took to reading books aloud and, more recently, showing him the finer points of calligraphy.
She also took him on strolls by the weapons stands. While he wasn't even a year old, not nearly old enough to learn to fight, let alone wield a real weapon, it never hurt to start young.
He was so frail in her arms, as she pointed out the kunai and the swords. Despite evidence to the contrary—she'd seen him survive a fall from a table once, though it nearly gave her nightmares—he felt breakable. His limbs were like moth wings, delicate and so easily destroyed. The longer she looked after him, the greater her fears grew that something terrible would befall him.
The world was so dangerous to children. Naori was only six years old and she already knew that. Carrying Madara around the camp, noticing for the first time all the hazards to his young life, she realized what a miracle it was she'd survived so long. And the adults, she thought, were the greatest miracle. They had actually struggled to adulthood.
Naori combed her fingers through Madara's wisps of raven hair. She wanted him to grow up to be an adult. She wanted him to live.
Months wore on and Naori was seven. Then, she was eight.
She no longer carried Madara. Instead, he toddled by her on surprisingly steady feet, holding onto her hand, watching every move with keen gray eyes. She couldn't help a smile at the wrinkle in his forehead whenever he was considering something, deeply serious. Usually, it was whether he wanted fish or a simple porridge. Sometimes, it was over his sets of identical outfits, all miniature Uchiha mantles with little sandals.
As the winter thawed into the beginnings of spring, Izuna came kicking and screaming into the world. He eventually gained the same sort of quiet paleness Madara had possessed as a newborn, but he never stopped kicking. And squirming. And writhing in his blankets. Really, it was no wonder he was called Izuna—weasel, indeed.
Naori kept a wary eye on the little child. It wasn't that she didn't like Izuna, because that was impossible. Izuna was the poster child for adorable babies. Rosy cheeks, shining eyes, a joyous babble—he would curl his fingers and beg, "Again! Again!" when Hikaku tossed him in the air, to the horror of the surrounding adults—he was a painting-perfect baby.
Only two years old, and Madara had latched himself to his little brother. He showed no signs of unlatching. He clung to Izuna with the stubborn clinginess of koala bear, pouting when Izuna was taken away. Not even Masami was spared his forehead wrinkle.
"He's not replacing you," said Hikaku one evening, cutting right down to the root of the issue.
Naori didn't like the ease with which he did things like that. Sometimes, she suspected he could read minds.
"I never said he was," she replied, keeping her eyes fixed on the scene before her. Madara was sitting on a blanket next to Izuna, who was thrashing out at invisible opponents. Wooden animals, painstakingly whittled by Hikaku, were scattered on the blanket. Madara had introduced each of them to his brother. "He loves his little brother dearly."
"He's two and he loves you, too," said Hikaku sagely.
"I'm not worried about it."
"Of course you're not."
Naori would deny until her dying breath the great swell of joy in her chest when Madara had asked her, in halting and imploring words, to watch her calligraphy lesson.
(Even if he only ended up using her ink to paint his animals. She'd gotten in trouble and Madara was taken home by Masami, but it had left ink stains on the tent floors and in the hems of her yukata. She pocketed one of the animals to give back to him later.
Somehow, the animal stayed in her pocket. It would find itself on her wall at some point in the future, forever remembered.)
Nothing could stop the ever marching beat of time. Madara was three, and then he was four, and then he was six. He was seven.
There was a marked difference between ages three and seven, Naori noted. The terrible twos were gone and done, though she hadn't thought them so terrible. Three was a time of innocent curiosity, fumbling hands grasping a kunai for the first time. Target practice was filled with more laughter than determination, focus often devolving into shrieks as they flung dirt clods at each other when they thought the adults weren't looking.
Seven was different. Seven was still young, still frail, but it was forming muscles. Callouses were formed, kunai were wielded for drawing blood, instead of passing time.
Naori was thirteen years old and she'd seen combat. She'd wielded those kunai and drew blood and watched the death rattles of enemies. Grayed eyes of corpses stared at her through her dreams. She tried to imagine Madara, all of seven, standing on those battlefields and found she would rather not.
The years had brought three more brothers. Akirou and Jitarou, twins, were born in the autumn. The final child was Shiori. He was born on a humid summer day at exactly noon, as lunch was being served. It was a running joke that the boy came kicking for his stomach.
"What if something bad happens to him?" said Madara, one week after Shiori's birth. He clutched the swaddled baby in his arms, such a reflection of Naori from years past that she did a doubletake. Wild-haired, pale as ever, with bruises and scratches from training, burrowing a frown into the baby's blankets, he was a sad image.
Naori sounded far calmer and assured than she felt. "He'll be okay. We'll just have to protect him."
There was a tiny nod.
Trouble arrived in the form of two of the older boys. They were Chihaku and Kenta respectively, fourteen years old, and knew better.
Naori had stumbled out of a ninjutsu lesson, hair singed, exhausted. As ever, she sought out Madara first thing, and found him toward the edge of the camp. They were in a spacious part of the forest, tents set up over trampled grasses, while the towering trees shot into the sky. Great, big ferns were almost tall enough to straggle over Madara's head, hiding him from view-almost being the key word.
She considered herself a mild-mannered person, but when she saw Kenta lash out to snatch Madara's hair, the other hand going for a kunai, she'd seen red. She didn't remember moving. One moment she was in the encampment, next moment Kenta was howling in pain and swearing at her with language he probably shouldn't have known.
"Are you hurt?" she asked, after she'd thrown a sideways kick to get Chihaku moving, too. "What were they doing?"
There was a ruckus in the camp. She heard raised voices.
"It was nothing," said Madara, very unconvincingly. He was on the verge of tears, which Naori carefully wiped away with the sleeves of her mantle, before anyone saw. She stayed placid and calm as she could, despite the rising tension in the camp. She could hear Chihaku's parents. "Do you…" Madara trailed off, dark eyes glancing to the camp. He lowered his voice. "Do you think I should cut my hair?"
Naori blinked. Of all the things she'd expected, the hair wasn't one of them. Madara's hair was thick and unruly. She knew some of the older shinobi tutted disapprovingly over its length, straggling down to his shoulder blades. He'd always seemed so proud of it.
"Do you?" she said.
In the camp, Tajima had brought everyone to order. Stories were being told in warbling voices.
Madara tucked his chin down behind his mantle, his voice a mumble. "No."
"Then, I don't think you need to," she said.
It was such a childish thing to worry about. She would laugh about it in the future, tuck it away and cherish it.
The moment was broken by the arrival of Tajima. He had his Clan Head voice galore, head held high, pinning them under a hawkish stare. Paired with the heavy mantle, his sash still tied around his blade from an earlier battle—Naori had stepped over the body of a comrade she'd called friend and nearly cried—he cut an imposing figure.
It took concentrated effort to keep herself placid.
Sometimes, she wondered. It was human nature, to wonder.
People couldn't help looking at other people and picking them apart every so often, and Naori was experiencing that feeling for the first time. She looked at him, as he watched Madara, and wondered how he was so cold. There wasn't the faintest glimmer of fondness. His eyes never softened for his son, not even when Madara did something noteworthy. His mouth was cut and cruel and Naori had the horrible feeling of standing at the edge of a cliff, clinging to a bridge, while he held a kunai to the fraying ropes.
He shifted his eyes to Masami as she glided over, resting a hand on Madara's shoulder. She guided him away. Madara kept glancing over his shoulder at Naori and Tajima, in what Naori suspected was a damning move, and waved at her. His hand was quickly pulled down by Masami, but the damage was done.
"You will need to distance yourself from him," said Tajima, sinking a blade into her chest that didn't kill, but it hurt. How it hurt. "He's a shinobi and soon he'll be fighting on the field. Do you want him to die? Do you want him to be cut down, because he's too soft to do what it takes to survive?"
Do you want him to die?
Naori was not a child any longer. She was almost fourteen years old, she'd killed people, and seen battle and the consequences of it. To her horror, his words brought a prickle of tears to her eyes. She blinked once, slow and cautious. She held her breath and prayed the ache in her throat wouldn't become uncontrollable.
"You'll train. You'll study. You have no need to interact with Madara while he is in training."
Naori breathed in. Out. Her voice was so steady it startled her. "Understood, Tajima-sama."
He gave her a sharp nod.
(The day was saved by a bonfire.
Naori suspected they all had Masami to thank, who twirled and danced and slammed bare feet to the ground with the beat of the music. She kept Madara close by her, going through a series of moves that looked like a kata, but flowed into a hypnotic dance, too.
Every move and step was taught to Madara. Masami guided him through the steps with the patience of a melting ice age, watching as he did his best not to stumble. Against the singers, who preferred a bass to deep alto, Madara's thin, warbling voice was high. It had brought raised eyebrows and curious stares, until Masami raised her voice into a soprano pitch that informed them Madara had inherited her voice, too.
He was joined by Izuna and Akirou and Jitarou, though the latter of the twins preferred not to sing. Izuna was loud in all things, most of all in voice, and out-sang them all. He out danced them, too. Masami spun them around the bonfire with the deftness of a shinobi.
Dancing with them was like dancing with a hurricane. No one stood a chance, not even Tajima, who was dragged out in a mantle and left the bonfire in significantly less. Hikaku poked her and showed her to a part of the camp where they were handing out sticks of sweet candy. Thick smoke floated through the air that wasn't from the bonfire.
All the while, Masami and Madara and his brothers were a wild frenzy of dark hair and flashing eyes. The five of them dominated the bonfire—pale and beautiful in that otherworldly way that was just as unnerving as it was intriguing. They were the Pied Piper and the lost children, the charmer and the innocents, the witch and her woodland creatures. Together, they were unstoppable.
Naori took a moment to step away from the curls of blue and violet smoke after that. She was, so Hikaku told her, waxing into the overly poetic.)
A series of accidents had befallen several members of the Uchiha Clan in the following months after Tajima's orders to Naori. Strictly speaking, she followed them to the letter, refraining from seeking Madara out and refusing the instinct to fight off his bullies.
When Tajima told the thirteen year old Naori to stay away from his oldest son, in an attempt to toughen him up, he had quite wrongly assumed that would be the end of it. Without the influence of the, frankly, overprotective girl—no longer did she pull splinters from his fingers, or read him bedtime stories when he was ill, or show him how to mix paints—Madara would shape into the model son in no time.
He had forgotten one little detail. It was a fickle thing amongst the Uchiha, all or nothing, undying or fleeting. Naori had taken a nosedive toward forever the first time she held baby Madara in her arms: that being, love. He was the little brother she always wanted. She couldn't even remember a time she might have wanted a sister, or didn't care for the sibling gender, because at that point in her mind, she had always wanted Madara.
So, when the day was wrapped up by a brawl, on the outskirts of camp, that resulted in Chihaku and Kenta sporting broken noses, no one thought twice of it. The two were troublemakers. But then it happened again. And again—until the adults noted a surefire pattern.
Kenta and Chihaku sniped something about Madara. About what, the adults weren't sure. Madara was seven and a genius and the son of the Clan Head. One with reason would try and suck up to Madara, rather than bully him. Kenta and Chihaku were the unreasonable sort.
The next incident was with one of the elderly Uchiha trainers in charge of Madara's development. He was quick to scold and encouragement was synonymous with teeth-pulling—and as it turned out, he had a rather crippling fear of beetles.
Madara also grew extremely fond of the birds. The falconer in charge of the aviary was a terse woman, unforgiving and very unlikely to accompany a child's interest. Her attitude changed very quickly when she started finding letters from her secret lover stuck in random parts of the encampment. Naori never confirmed reading the letters, but Madara's welcome to the aviary was well known.
"Tajima-sama is going to find out what you're doing," Hikaku warned her emphatically over dinner. "I want to make sure he's happy as much as you, but it'll be pointless if we all get in trouble."
She nodded and promised to be careful. She wouldn't get caught.
The next day, Madara ventured into the forest for herbs and berries. He was fond of taking walks there, to the chagrin of Naori and the other clansmen, but today in particular he had wandered deeper than ever. It filled Naori with a deep unease, the farther they strayed from the clan.
Hikaku was a step behind her. They had tailed him, unwilling to discourage that exploratory streak he always seemed to possess. The clan could use the food, too. Hard times seemed to fall swifter and harder on the Uchiha Clan than it did with other clans.
"How much further do you think he's going to go?" said Hikaku with a wary sort of sideways smile. He was worried and annoyed they'd let themselves get in that situation.
"He seems to have found a sweet spot."
Indeed, Madara had spent the last ten minutes in the same meadow. He filled a wicker basket with herbs and berries and other edible roots.
Naori was having difficulty staying awake.
There were red rashes covering her body from some sort of itching powder she highly suspected Shiori had somehow procured. For a child of three, he was turning out to be quite the hellion. He was nothing like Akirou, who was dedicated to his books and quiet training; or Jitarou, who actively avoided conflict, despite showing an inclination for lifting things much, much heavier than him. Shiori even outpaced Izuna, who pouted about it spectacularly—and then denied it.
With rowdy children like them living in a tent not far from hers, it was a wonder she slept at all.
Because Madara was quietly picking berries in the clearing, showing no sign of moving, and she was at risk of nodding off on the spot, Naori conceded.
"I wouldn't mind going back for one of those bean candies," she said, shifting in her spot to coil her legs under her. She could probably sprint back to camp and return in under fifteen minutes. Madara couldn't wander too far. "I'll be right back."
Hikaku sighed, drawing an arch look from her.
"Let me," he said, holding out a hand when she went to protest. "Plus I didn't tell my grandfather where I was going."
Naori's grin was sharp and full of teeth. "Nice knowing you, then."
"He won't be too angry," said Hikaku, though he sounded unsure of himself. "For real—I'll be right back."
A gust of wind kicked up in his wake. Leaves spiraled through the air past her, dragging wisps of dark hair around her cheeks. She flicked the shoulder-length waves back, training a steady eye on Madara. He'd long since lost the uncertain stumble of his toddler years. Despite his wide-eyed youth, he moved like an experienced shinobi. There was grace to his movements that Naori knew she, or Hikaku, hadn't had when they were his age. Being the son of the Clan Head, it was expected that he excel above the others his age. He was lucky he happened to be a real genius.
She uncurled her legs under her. Branches were not, for the record, the most comfortable object to sit on for the better part of three hours. She leaned against the tree, pushing aside a pine branch, the needles prickling her face. The sap smelled of freshly cut maple leaves.
Pine needles, she knew, with a growing sense of dread, unable to remain sitting on the branch, were not supposed to smell like maple trees. She didn't take her eyes off Madara, plucking a few pine needles free of the branch, gathering her chakra up. The needles smelled of regular leaves-not at all like pine sap.
She landed on the ground. She didn't call out for Madara. He would look up and know she was there—or, worse still, wouldn't look up at all.
Chakra pooled for a pulse. She needed only speak the word.
Madara had been quiet for too long. He had been still for too long. Madara never stayed contained to one area that long, and she should have noticed it sooner—
The clearing rippled. Madara melted away.
She should have seen the waking nightmare settling over her before it happened. She tore over the clearing, regardless of the little voice telling her he was gone, because he was just there. He could have taken a nap, hidden under the tall grasses and delicate white flowers, but he wasn't.
The forest was big, was the direction she didn't want her mind to go. She stood with crushed flowers in her fingers, wild eyes searching the darkness between the giant tree trunks, as though Madara would step around one of them at any moment. She gaped wordlessly, half forming his name.
How long had he been gone? was the question that sent her brain slipping over fine glass, her tenuous calm cracking apart.
She stumbled over something hard, catching sight of bright red smeared against grasses and mashed in the ground, and there was only white terror, thoughtless, soundless—
Blueberries. She knelt, pushing trembling fingers into the juices. It was blueberries. They were scattered in the area, crushed against the grasses and flowers, as though there'd been a short fight.
Naori flung herself forward, following the trail of spilled blueberries into the forest. The wicker basket Madara carried was nowhere to be seen, so he still had it, and he'd been spilling out berries and herbs all the while—
(Corpses flashed on a battlefield. Bodies filled with kunai and blades, eyes gouged out. Gaping dark holes in their skulls.)
—he'd run from whatever attacked him, from whoever was trying to kill him, but she would find him—
(Birds plucked the skin off carrion. The ravens were the harbingers of death. She thought she heard the throaty caw of a raven somewhere and tried not to think of Uchiha Tanaka, six years old, throat slit on her first mission.)
—and she would never let him out of her sight again. Most importantly, he was alive. He was alive, because he was stronger than other children his age. He was a genius and strong and alive. There would be no small body, bloodied and deadened, and she wouldn't need feel that grief.
Her eyes stung and she knew she'd activated the sharingan. Deactivate it, whispered a voice that sounded like the one that guided her through bloody massacres. Sidestep and weave and stab and bleed-you don't want to see this, you don't want to remember it, deactivate the sharingan—
There was the wicker basket. She stopped by it, turning a full circle, scouring the area for any signs of him. A broken branch, a smear of blueberry guts, a tattered yukata sleeve—
She froze. It was hard to keep her eyes open. A gravity seemed to pull them down, burned them, but she couldn't look away.
A delicate curl of ferns framed a bed of underbrush. There were streaks of a dark, glittering red against the fringed plants. She saw the edge of a yukata sleeve, or maybe a scrap of the bottom, or maybe it was a sash, draped over the top of a low-lying branch. The laurel tree seemed to stoop protectively over the small area, shielding it from her.
Naori pushed aside the branch. There were droplets of red on the greenery. She pawed through ferns. The blood smeared on her hands.
It was Madara's yukata, and there was a body in it. The body didn't very much resemble Madara anymore.
Something high and keening was piercing through her ears. She might have been screaming, but her teeth were clamped shut. She would have thrown up, but she'd seen dead bodies before. She might have cried, but she always knew what she was going to find there.
Her eyes were on fire, temples clamped between her hands, rasping breaths wheezing from her lungs.
His body was stripped to ribbons. It didn't even look like the work of a shinobi. It was savage and brutal. His eyes were still there. Dark and dull and widened in eternal horror.
The bony rattle of laughter was carried on the wind, as it howled through the pines. Another breeze, so startlingly warm it was like being doused in bath water, flowed around Naori's shoulders. There was a creak, a groan, something large unfurling. A tree was falling.
A voice, kind and horribly familiar, spoke behind her, always dry, always a little raspy, as though speaking was a labor of effort. She never sounded so tortured while she sang.
Floating steps. Warm hands pried her away from Madara—she didn't remember crumpling forward to clutch him, but now she was coated in gore—and smoothed dark hair away from her face.
"Oh, Naori. Naori, dear, look at me."
It was Masami. Ashen-faced, eyes so big that Naori mistook them for gaping sockets. Her grip was hard as iron on Naori's shoulders. She murmured something, but it was like hearing words from underwater.
She stepped around the body (Naori couldn't bear to think of that mangled thing as Madara, couldn't compute that with Madara, who was bright and strong and willful) and knelt by it. She pulled a head, grinning teeth exposed, onto her lap.
Green light bloomed in her hands.
"Naori, it will be alright," said Masami, her face gaunt, like paper-thin skin stretched over a skull, like the body in her arms. "I promise."
The clan was in the middle of packing up. No one knew why they were packing up, spurned by the spontaneous orders of their clan head. Most were loathe to leave behind an area that was ripe with game and fresh vegetation, but took one look at the borderline manic gleam in Tajima's eyes, and didn't dare to argue.
Mists clung to the ground level of the forest, turning everything damp, turning simple issues into a three-hundred step problem. The sky bloomed a bloody red as sunset crept over them.
Word got out that three of their own was missing. Uchiha scrambled like dark ants on across the matted meadow they'd camped in for no longer than a week. A few of the adults pulled Hikaku aside to question him, gently as they could through their impatience, and were met with a confused blankness.
Hikaku hadn't seen them all day.
Sunset died in a splendor of dark blue and green, where the light touched the dusk, and the Uchiha abandoned subtlety. Search parties crawled through the forest, trees were leveled, and fires sent up. A frenzied energy was building up under their skin, born from packing so quickly, given life from the fact they'd packed and not left yet.
There are four others, cracked whispers started. Four other children. Does he need the first?
Oh, that child was powerful, but the elders doubted he was worth the effort. They were sending out smoke signals to all enemies within range for a pair of errant children and one woman.
Everything was brought to a halt by Izuna's ringing shout. The boy, all of six, bounded over a tree branch and half-sprinted, half-crawled, over branches in the canopies.
Naori and Madara poured out of the underbrush, as though the forest had carried them along and deposited them, supporting each other with shaking limbs. A glaze coated their eyes. More importantly, there was no Masami accompanying them.
Pine needles and dirt clung to them. Madara's yukata was sliced through as though someone went at it with a wind jutsu. Dried blood coated the hems and the torn, ragged ends. He smelled of crushed berries and ozone. Even after Tajima had pried him away from Naori, roughly yanking him from the proceedings to pull him into a secluded part of the forest, and shake him for answers—"Where is Masami? Where is your mother? Why are you alone? What happened? Answer me!"—he was unresponsive.
Finally, Naori twitched. It was a short-lived move, but stark against her corpse-like stillness. The adult trying to coax her out of her daze gave an encouraging prompt.
She lifted a hand, fingers shaking so hard her entire arm trembled, and extended an open palm to Tajima. A necklace of hawk talons rested in her small, calloused hand.
A deep, profound silence settled over the Uchiha Clan. Dozens of dark eyes flickered to Tajima. Sadness and shock and sympathy alike flickered in the night.
Tajima took the necklace. His other hand was still clamped on Madara's shoulder. He looked at the hawk talon, as though it was a trick, before it disappeared in his fist.
His next words were an order.