I T A M A
When Butsuma strikes her for the first time, it shocks far worse than it stings. He looks down at her, lying where she’s fallen, and the disgust on his face makes it plain that his only regret is in having wasted the energy on her at all. Itama feels as she always feels when he looks at her this way, as though her lungs might give out, chest collapsing in on itself.
She’s never understood why her father looks at her as he does, she only wishes he would tell her so she might know how to fix it.
Old bruises ache when he pulls her up by the wrist, jarring her shoulder painfully with the force by which he tugs her upright. His words are quiet but viciously angry, punctuated by spittle. Only experience keeps her from recoiling when he speaks.
“It is not your place to question me, nor any other man who bears the Senju crest on his back. Not even in death.”
Itama is rarely alone with her father, and some part of her, the part that always hopes for the best no matter what she knows, had been pleased when it was just the two of them who shared tea this morning. Now, she would give anything for her brothers to be here, and the thought brings with it a fresh wave of grief.
“I only—” Butsuma’s grip tightens and Itama’s words are broken by a whimper.
“Have you not heard me? Have I not been clear enough with you, child?” This close, Itama can’t avoid the sharp edge of his breath, and she doesn’t need to be grown to know that if she dares look away from him, she’ll see both cup and bottle have run dry.
“I’m sorry, father.” Itama’s voice is small, it does nothing to soften the anger in Butsuma’s eyes.
“What good is sorry, Itama? Do not be sorry, be better.”
Itama nods as he lets her go and she collapses, bowing low in apology. It’s an easy way to hide her tears as she listens to her father mutter to himself over ungrateful children and wasted opportunities, picking up the bottle left abandoned on the table and setting it down loudly enough she feels her heart jump and her muscles tense. Only when heavy footfalls carry out of the room does she allow her cries to be heard.
She only wants to understand why. Kawarama isn’t—wasn’t—so much bigger than her, and she knows it’s different for her brothers but she can’t make sense of it. Her father hasn’t told her much, but she overheard him speaking to Hashirama and Tobirama. Kawarama had been alone, why had he been alone?
I Z U N A
Frustration mounts and Izuna feels herself burning up as she tries to cut her way through the underbrush, just the same as her brother had moments earlier. He made it look so easy and whenever she asks him to show her how, he tells her she must learn for herself. She pays the sting of the nettles no mind, but the sharp ache in her knee from an earlier fall refuses to be ignored.
Her father catches her by the back of her collar just as she rushes forward. Upon hearing his voice, she freezes. It’s the first she’s seen him away from her brother Sōma’s bedside in days and her most immediate fear, the one that catches in her throat and seizes her lungs, is that he’s come to tell her he’s passed.
“Father.” She faces him, he looks tired, just as he did when mother— “Has Sōma—is he—”
“No, no.” Even as he reassures her, he does not sound pleased, and Izuna feels no better. Tajima’s hand is heavy on her shoulder, scolding and comforting at once. “What are you doing out here, tramping around in the bush?” What are you doing out here when your brother lay dying? Though he doesn’t say it, Izuna hears it all the same.
“I was trying to catch brother Madara—”
“Madara is a man grown.” Izuna need not be reminded. She huffs and for once, cannot be angry at her father’s amusement when it brings a slight smile to his eyes. He holds her eyes and when he crouches in front of her, there’s something calculated in his expression. Izuna feels she’s missing something. “You cannot match him for strength or speed, so you must be clever. Where will he go?”
Izuna nods seriously and considers her father’s question. Madara always runs to the caves a few miles west of their home, they’d been headed in that direction. He’s too quick to catch when she chases him, but her father wouldn’t ask if Madara meant to go where she couldn’t catch him, which means there’s something she’s overlooked.
She thinks of how he’d looked when he ran for the treeline. Eyes red, face hollow—he won’t go so far from home today. “The river, maybe?” Tajima smiles, Izuna takes it as affirmation. “Thank you, father!” Once again, he catches her before she can run off, this time by the wrist. Izuna startles when he tears a strip from his robe and gently takes her aching knee in his hand while she braces herself on his shoulder.
“Take care when you can, Izuna,” he cautions as he wraps her knee, pulling the linen tight as he ties it, but not so much as to hinder her movements, “and bring your brother home once you’ve caught him. A visit from you both might do Sōma well.”
I T A M A
Itama wakes with a horrible pain in the pit of her stomach. She strains against the cramps to light the lantern by her bed, and when she pulls back the duvet, she’s met with the sight of warm blood smeared between her thighs, staining her linens. Panic floods her body, spilling out from her chest and burning through her veins.
With trembling hands, she gathers the skirting of her yukata between her legs, takes the lantern from her bedside, and slips into the hall. At this time of night, the air is so still that it feels every breath and step taken risks waking the dead.
Tobirama has always slept light and he wakes before Itama has even slid the door shut behind her, concern clear in his voice as he calls her name. As soon as she kneels by his futon, holding herself together becomes an impossibility and Itama pitches forward, muffling her cries against his shoulder as he draws her into his arms. Tobirama holds her tight and lets her cry until she catches her breath enough to speak.
“I don’t want to leave you,” she sobs, voice coloured by all the forlorn melancholy only a girl of her age can muster.
“Itama, what do you—”
“Look, brother.” Frantically, she takes Tobirama’s hand and slips it past the split of her robe, between her legs. It comes away red, even in the faint light of the lantern. Tobirama stares down at his hand and when he looks back to her, she can see that his calm demeanour is false. His voice may be balanced, but the rhythm of his pulse under her palm is not. She watches his throat move as he swallows.
“Growing up needn’t be such a curse, Itama.” Beyond his measured tone, she can hear the concern in his voice.
“It already is.” Tobirama doesn’t argue with her, he simply pulls her close again and Itama tries to soothe herself in his arms. In his presence, her panic fades, leaving only exhaustion and despair in its wake.
“You’re a woman now.” There’s a strange quality to her brother’s voice, one she cannot name. “You can’t continue to crawl into my bed like a frightened child.” It’s a reflex, the way her hands go tight against his back as she tries to swallow down the tears that threaten to rise again, and Tobirama’s hand comes up to cradle her head. She feels the heft of his sigh against her chest. “Perhaps just for tonight,” he allows.
“Thank you, brother.” Itama recognizes how pitiful her voice sounds, but cannot find it within herself to sound otherwise.
T O B I R A M A
Sharp pain cuts across his scalp, but it’s nothing to the sting of his sister’s scream when their father’s boot comes down on his back. It takes a moment to orient himself, but he understands the situation well enough and as he listens to Itama tearfully plead with their father, he’s proven correct.
Butsuma has awoken to find Itama asleep in his bed with blood between her thighs and assumed the worst. Tobirama cannot say he blames his father for the assumption and it makes him sick with himself.
“Father, please. It’s not as it seems. I was frightened—I was sick—”
“You are both sick, ever since your damned mother—”
“I woke with such awful cramps, like I’d never experienced, and when I saw the blood—I was frightened, father. Please, Tobirama has done nothing wrong, forgive me—” Tobirama knows better than to raise his head as he’s dragged to his knees, but he does so regardless. Butsuma’s expression is enough to silence the room. He looks between them, skeptical, as Tobirama rights himself to kneel and Itama does the same. Both of them look to the floor as Butsuma steps away to pace the room.
It would make more sense had Itama gone to Hashirama, who is skilled in healing, but then—the very reason their father trusts them so little is the one that gives credit to her excuse. It would be unlike her to have gone to their brother before him.
“You’ve become a woman, then.” Out of the corner of his eye, Tobirama sees Itama’s knuckles go white over the stained skirt of her robe as she nods. “Good. But a grown woman shouldn’t be crawling into her brother’s bed in the night, in any case. An example will be set here and now, I’d advise you to follow it.”
Tobirama watches as Butsuma begins to loosen the leather cord he keeps wound over his belt and speaks instinctively.
“Itama is already unwell, allow me to take the punishment for both of us.”
“Itama,” their father warns, “thank your brother, and let that be the last I hear from you.” For a moment, no one speaks.
“Thank you, Tobirama.” Her voice is quiet when it comes, and he doesn’t have to look at her to know her eyes are wet, nor does he need to be told what comes next.
He turns on his knees, loosens the ties of his robe so that his back meets the cool morning air, and waits for the sting of the switch. Itama does a poor job of muffling her sobs beside him, and the pain of being unable to soothe her is the worst their father inflicts.
I Z U N A
Izuna tells no one when she wakes with a fever. Madara has promised to train with her this morning and time with him is both scarce and uncertain. She wouldn’t risk it for something so trivial as a slight temperature.
All through their spar, Izuna holds her own. Among their clan, she’s second only to her brother and father, despite her young age, and every day the itch to prove herself in battle grows stronger. Even Madara crows with delight more over her wins than he does his own. Most days, it makes her laugh, but today, it irks her.
Perhaps it’s the ache that’s set itself into her bones, or the way her movements don’t seem to come with the same sharp grace as has become second nature to her. It’s difficult to parse, and regardless of the cause, the irritation that drives her to be vicious is still the same. She knows her brother has noticed from the look in his eye when he throws down his blade and declares the match over.
A part of her wants to refuse and demand they continue, irate beyond reason with her own feelings after having looked forward to this morning as she has, but ultimately, she knows it won’t serve her to behave like a child when she has no desire to be seen as one. So, she takes his words with as much grace as she can muster and leaves for the stream buried deep in the forest.
It’s a foolish thing to do. Everyone knows the river serves as the unspoken line between the Senju and Uchiha land, and she could be easily caught out on her own. It’s also the one place she knows none of her clansmen will follow her, and she wants to keep the flush under her skin to herself.
Knelt by the riverbed, the relief of cool water splashed over her face and neck is immediate, but not enough. She’s halfway disrobed when she notices the blood between her thighs. Izuna’s mouth goes dry when reaches between her legs and finds her fingers come away stained red.
A part of her wants to scream with delight, but she bites her tongue, not foolish enough to be loud so near to the Senju border, no matter how elated she is at her own newfound maturity.
It’s as her sister told her it would be. She feels ill at ease, nauseous and exhausted with too short a fuse, but—she is now a woman grown. No one can hold her back from the fight another day. This is how Madara finds her, and even his uncharacteristic sourness cannot spoil her joy.
M A D A R A
Gathered around their table that evening, the mood is one of celebration. Watching as their father pours Izuna her first cup of sake, Madara finds he has no spirit for it. Izuna has always felt like his own heart held in his hands, and when he tries to see her as a woman grown, he can think only of the cups that sit empty between them for the siblings they’ve already lost. If Izuna’s was to join theirs, he fears he would lose himself in turn.
It’s a selfish, hideous thought, especially with Kaede sitting across from him, sharing in their father’s good mood. Still, he doesn’t understand how she can’t see what he sees. Perhaps he’s only bitter, but she’s the oldest behind him, and he wonders at how she does not seem to feel an older sibling’s burden as he does.
Madara can still remember the weight of Izuna the first time their mother had placed her in his arms. She’d been fading fast, and he’d sworn to her that his sister would never feel the absence of her love. He’d give her so much she’d want for nothing. It feels like a lifetime ago. It feels like yesterday.
Since the day their mother left them, he’s felt attuned to Izuna in a way that’s unique to her, something he’s not felt with any of his other siblings, nor his parents. It shows in how quickly she picks up on his mood, even if it does nothing to sour her own. Madara has no wish to spoil her evening, so he gathers himself and toasts to her newfound womanhood, trying not to show how the words curdle on his tongue as he speaks them.
In the morning, Izuna will dress for battle and follow them into the field. Dread weighs heavy on his chest at the thought and he sleeps less that night than he did the eve of his own first battle.
When the dawn breaks, he finds that his thirst for the fight never takes with quite the same ferocity as he’s come to expect of himself, though it still lingers and grows stronger as he girds old wounds and stretches well-worn leather over his knuckles.
Izuna waits outside his room, the first ready, too eager by a mile, though perhaps the thought makes him a hypocrite. This will be the last time she looks up at him with such innocence as she does now, and while he mourns for the child she was already, a part of him is eager to see what she’ll become.
“Try not to look so pleased.”
“You were no better!” Izuna does a poor job of hiding her grin as he settles beside her. She’s not wrong, but he denies it just for the pleasure of arguing with her. When he hears their father’s footsteps, he pulls her close by the nape and wills her to understand the seriousness of his words.
“You and I both know you’re stronger than most the men of our clan, but you must listen to me now.” Her eyes have gone wide at the shift in his demeanour. “When you see the Demon Senju, do not try to be strong. Be clever. He has all your strength and more, if you rely on that alone, you won’t see another sun rise.”
“I can be clever,” Izuna nods, eyes still wide.
“I know.” Madara speaks more to himself than to his sister as he presses his head to hers and squeezes tight at her nape. Let this not be the last time I feel her warm under my touch, he prays. “I know.”
T O B I R A M A
Satisfaction eludes him, as it always has in her presence. After countless clashes, he has her where he wants her. It’s cost him more than he cares to count, but she cannot move from her place pinned in the mud that covers them both. Her arm is limp, bent wrong at her side with the other held tight in his grip while thick blood pours from the fresh wound at her hip.
She still looks up at him as though she has the advantage and when she speaks, her voice is wet with blood, yet still somehow as sharp as ever.
“You may be a weak man, but I never took you for the type to waste an opportunity,” she spits. Even torn from her throat as they are, the words still sting. She always presumes too much. “Where has your fear gone, Tobirama?” He takes her jaw in hand with enough force she can’t close it and resists the urge to curl his nails into her skin.
“Death is for cowards and those who deserve mercy.” Looking at her now, sharp eyes and full lips that’ve haunted his dreams in ways that show him the worst of himself, driven half mad by the smell of her blood, he speaks without thinking, “I can think of more deserving fates for a woman of your kind.”
He means for it to frighten her, but Izuna only laughs, bitter.
“I’m certain you can.” She uses what’s left of her strength to rise against him, make clear she feels the truth of his statement, and Tobirama is overwhelmed by the swell of anger that fills his chest, making him feel as though he might combust. It takes all he has to keep from crushing her windpipe under his arm as he forces her back down into the dirt.
“You tempt fate, even now.”
“Is that all?”
“Is your own life such a game to you?”
Izuna is no fool and he bears the cost of mistaking her for one each day of his life, as he’s reminded of every time he catches his own reflection. Even so, she has a way of getting under his skin that tempts him to forget. If she wants to seduce him into martyring her, a part of him yearns to give her her way.
Another part of him, the worst part of him, that speaks with his father’s voice and the soul of his sire, yearns to tear her eyes from her pretty face and show her what use an Uchiha woman is without them.
M A D A R A
“Our clans will never know peace if she dies.”
Hashirama’s face is grave, if he’s startled by the words that threaten to rupture Madara’s chest, he doesn’t show it. Instead, he simply nods and kneels by Izuna’s side, cutting away the bodice of her armour quickly and efficiently while Madara holds her to keep himself from looking back at Tobirama while he’s still covered in her blood.
If he does, he knows he will be the one to reap the consequences of his own warning.
Eventually, they make it off the battlefield and Hashirama doesn’t hesitate to follow Madara onto Uchiha grounds, despite his brother’s protests. Tobirama doesn’t dare step foot to follow. Neither of them sleep while fever keeps Izuna in its grip. Hashirama assures Madara that this is a good thing.
“It’s a sign that her body is still fighting,” he swears, face earnest in that way that always tempts Madara to believe him, despite his better instincts. “And, better yet, your sister is an Uchiha. Who could be better suited to bear a fever with resilience?”
Madara laughs, but there is no humour to it.
For nearly a week, Izuna wakes only in fits. Half-delirious, with little awareness of her surroundings beyond his own presence. He tries to be of comfort, but she recoils when she senses Hashirama at her bedside, spitting vitriol with such intensity that he worries he’s made a mistake and her anger alone will be the death of her, with his betrayal of her trust her last memory.
“You’ve done nothing wrong, my friend.” Hashirama tries to soothe him while Izuna sleeps. The two of them sit on the steps outside of her room, braced by the chill in the air.
“You are alone in that thought.” It wounds him to admit, but Madara sees the truth of it well enough in the way his clansmen look at him. It’s been near two years since his father died and he stepped up to lead them, it feels they trust him less each day than they did the last. Without Izuna to mitigate his worst impressions, he’s not certain what will become of him in their eyes.
“And who here knows you better than I do?” Hashirama is neither wrong nor comforting.
Tobirama’s ignorance has never been more than an irritant, but now, it feels calamitous. Madara carries the threat of madness under his skin everywhere he goes, waiting for the chance to cut through his skin and seep into everything he touches when the grief becomes too much.
Only when Hashirama finds him and declares Izuna’s fever has broken does the pain begin to recede, leaving exhaustion in its wake. When he goes to her bedside, he sees Izuna with clear eyes and colour in her face for the first time in a week. Her voice is troubled as she asks why he allowed Hashirama to heal her despite her wishes, but her breath is steady and her heartbeat strong. He has no regrets.
When Izuna is back asleep and he has satisfied himself with the steady rise and fall of her chest, he finds Hashirama waiting outside and pulls him into a rough embrace.
“Thank you.” The words grate like sandpaper over stone, too much feeling behind them not to rub raw.
“Please, don’t thank me, my friend. It’s a pain I’d rather neither of us felt again.” Madara laughs. His heart aches. The weariness of the past week, the past decade, has set itself deep into his bones and he feels his age in a way that’s new to him.
“You are too good as always, Hashirama, but you are not wrong.”
“Madara?” Hope colours the question in Hashirama’s voice and lights his eyes when Madara pulls back to look at him properly, gripping his shoulder more to brace himself than the man in front of him.
“Enough blood has been shed between us, let us have peace at last.”