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AUgust 2022 (Naruto Edition)

Chapter Text

Asuma’s arms, accustomed as they were to the drag of strong ocean tides, ached terribly. The waves crashed against his small boat, water sloshing over the sides. He cursed and bit down on the drowned cigarette still perched between his lips, though the rain had long since put it out. He rowed harder still, desperate to get back to shore before the sudden storm, blowing in on a once sunny morning, could do him in. 

He barely noticed it at first, hard as the rain was beating down on him. It sounded like chimes tinkling out a melody underwater. Asuma hardly registered the sound until he noticed that the ache in his arms had almost entirely abated, and he cursed again, at himself this time, when he realized that he had all but stopped rowing. His body felt oddly light, a bit numb. 

That was when it dawned on him, awareness of the music surrounding him. It washed over him from all sides, somehow seeming to resonate even within his body. Each note slid down his back, through his veins, constricted around his heart so gently that he barely registered it as a threat. The useless cigarette tumbled into the water gathering around his shins.

His arms began to move again, still numb and, to Asuma’s great dismay, paddling the boat away from the shore he needed to get back to. The song rang within and without him, pouring over his tongue and tangling between his fingers. Coaxing his hands to grip the oars tightly.

Pulling him.

Guiding him to… where?

The further Asuma paddled, the more the music swelled, a sweeping crescendo gathering his resolve and bolstering his courage. He knew that whatever he was experiencing was objectively terrifying and should have him shaking in fear, but Asuma trembled with excitement instead. Something was calling him, and his own soul answered in kind, seeking harmony. 

She was waiting for him when his boat reached the cave that would protect him from the storm. Though Asuma had never once in his life laid eyes on her, he knew those crimson eyes as if they were his own. Her song drew him ever closer, each note guiding his feet while those swirling eyes, so gentle despite their violent color, gazed upon him as if he was the only thing in the universe that existed. Waves of dark hair spilled across her shoulders, her skin pale as moonbeams and cool beneath Asuma’s fingertips once he could reach her. 

The spell was broken the instant he made contact, and Asuma glanced back at the cave’s entrance in time to see the storm growing to disastrous dimensions. Bolt after bolt of lightning struck, accompanied by deafening thunder, the waves towering like small mountains. Another minute out there, and Asuma surely would have perished.

He reached into the front pocket of his vest, but the carton of cigarettes was soaked through. Cold arms reached up to drape around his shoulders, and the words that usually came to Asuma so easily failed. Her painted lips parted in a perfect smile, sucking the air from Asuma’s lungs as she pulled herself up on her tiptoes to kiss him. 

She tasted like the ocean, only brighter and comforting. 

Asuma was still too stunned to speak, but she answered his unvoiced question in a deliciously low, hypnotic voice. “Kurenai.”

 

The storm had broken long, long before Asuma found the strength to leave.

Chapter Text

“Screw you, Izuna,” Madara huffed at yet another sly, unsolicited remark on his (nonexistent) love life. “I’m getting another drink.” 

Getting up, he shot one last dirty look at Izuna and their cousins, Hikaku and Naori, who were snickering at poor, celibate Madara (no wonder he’s so angry all the time) . Madara would normally ask his younger brother if he wanted another drink while he was up, but he was feeling petty. So Izuna could fetch (and pay for) his own damn drinks. 

Pushing through the crowd that was blocking the bar—and then getting a bartender’s attention to take his order—further soured Madara’s mood. If it weren’t Hikaku’s birthday, he wouldn’t have come out at all. Finally, whiskey sour in hand, he turned to return the table, determined to make himself stay for at least another thirty minutes.

He made it three steps before someone (a very solid someone) turned and crashed into him, drenching his shirt and the front of his pants. It felt as if a vein would burst in the side of Madara’s head, which whipped upward with all intentions of eviscerating the moron on the spot and—

Oh. 

Well, then.

The curses and threats at the tip of Madara’s tongue evaporated as he found himself face-to-face with what could only be described as a god among men. The perpetrator was several inches taller than Madara, with bronze skin, wide shoulders and— bless the gods —muscular arms that practically begged for Madara to grab and squeeze and hold. Shiny chestnut hair hung down almost to his waist, perfectly straight and smooth as liquid. His deep brown eyes were wide with shock until Madara met his gaze—then they narrowed and, after a few seconds, nearly bulged out of his stupidly gorgeous head.

“I–” The man grabbed his shoulders, looking frantically down at the mess over his shirt. “I mean, I didn’t— Sorry!” 

“That’s…” Madara blinked up at him, half in a daze. “...okay.”

“Please, can I buy you a replacement?”

Madara looked down at the almost completely empty glass in his hand, then back. His face burned with embarrassment. “It’s fine.” The man opened his mouth to object, but Madara was desperate to get away before he made an even bigger fool of himself. “I think I could use a smoke instead.”

Winter was looming and the chill kept most of the bar’s patrons indoors, but Madara really needed to cool down a bit—both literally and figuratively. He was surprised when the guy followed him to the outdoor sitting area. A part of Madara knew better than to complain about keeping a hot stranger around.

Taking one for himself, Madara extended the carton of cigarettes toward the other man, but he held up a hand in refusal. Madara shrugged and reached for his lighter. He waited for the guy to say something, but he kept quiet while sneaking glances in Madara’s direction when he thought he wasn’t looking. Madara’s pulse pounded behind his eardrums, his stomach swooping even as he tried to stop himself from feeling unnecessarily flattered.

“I’m Madara,” he finally offered, inhaling the first drag and closing his eyes as the nicotine seeped into his system.

“Oh.” Why did he sound so disappointed? After a long pause: “Do you come here often?”

Madara studied the other man from the corner of his eye, unsure if he was hitting on him or not. 

“More often than I’d like,” he admitted. “I have my brother to thank for dragging me out.”

“Well, I’m glad he did.”

Madara nearly choked because that sounded an awful lot like a pickup line. “Is that so?”

When Madara turned his head, he found he was being watched with an odd, soft expression. “Give Izuna my thanks.”

“Wait, how do you–”

“You really don’t remember me at all?” He sighed dramatically, shoulders sagging. Madara could practically feel the depression radiating from him in waves, and when he pouted like that, he looked almost like–

“Hashirama?” Madara gasped.

True to form, his childhood friend perked up instantly. “So you do remember!”

“A lot has changed…” Madara, feeling much more at ease, eyed the grown-up version of Hashirama appreciatively, and watched him smile (perhaps preening a bit) under his gaze. “Without the dorky bowlcut, you’re like a different person.”

Hashirama deflated again. “Was it really that bad?”

Madara laughed harder than he had in years. “Oh, yeah! It was terrible. Truly god-awful, and I can’t believe anyone let you leave the house with the fashion sense you had.”

“Well,” Hashirama drew himself up to full height and turned to face Madara fully. “How do I look now?”

“You look…” Madara could feel his face turning red again, and he averted his eyes too quickly. “Really good.”

Chancing a sidelong look, Madara saw that Hashirama’s face was a bit pink, too. His shoulder grazed Madara’s as he said, quietly, “You look good, too… Like… really, really good.”

That got Madara to look up, and he immediately regretted it because Hashirama was watching him again, studying him with an unreadable expression that made Madara feel a bit too seen. He busied himself with flicking ash off the end of his cigarette. “So… should I be worried about your father coming to drag you off like last time?”

Beside him, Hashirama let out a nervous laugh. “No, no… He actually died a few years back.”

“Oh. My condolences, then… Mine died last year.” Madara stubbed out his cigarette and added, as an afterthought, “And I don’t miss him one bit.”

Hashirama seemed relieved. “Same… We both had pretty shitty fathers, didn’t we?”

Madara hummed in agreement. “I never understood why they hated each other so much in the first place.”

“Mine would never tell me either, so I guess we’ll never know… Hey, Madara?”  Hashirama paused, wetting his lips before granting Madara another of his easy smiles. “This may be presumptuous of me… but do you want to get out of here?”

“Gods, yes.” 

Madara didn’t even bother going back for his jacket, just texted Izuna to not expect him home that night.

Chapter Text

A thick, impenetrable veil of darkness slowly settled in, quietly curling outward from the corners of the small bedroom, draping itself like a blanket over the sparse furnishings. Hashirama held his breath as it smothered the final remnants of moonbeams filtering through the blinds. As the dark continued to unfold, sounds from the outside world fell away as well, until all Hashirama could hear was his own ragged breathing and the ba-dump, ba-dump of his heart against his ribcage.

The back of Hashirama’s neck tingled as the air grew heavier, buzzing as if with electricity. It was useless to rely on his eyes once the room had succumbed entirely to shadows, but he couldn’t help but glance around once he realized that he wasn’t alone.

“Did you miss me?” Light or no, Hashirama couldn’t mistake the smile in his voice as the bed shifted under his weight. It made Hashirama’s chest ache with fondness.

“Madara.” Hashirama’s hands fumbled in the dark to find him, grasping at air as they blindly searched for purchase. When they finally settled on a shoulder, Hashirama dragged them upwards until he could feel his visitor’s face, and the warmth spreading inside him bloomed tenfold when his fingers confirmed that Madara was indeed grinning. He looked forward to these nocturnal interludes as much as Hashirama did.

His skin was much warmer than Hashirama’s, a muted inferno just on the right side of too hot. Hashirama’s fingers cupped his jaw, reverently traced the curve of his lips, and he sighed as Madara lowered his head to kiss him. It was a bit ironic, Hashirama thought, that kissing Madara tasted like the sun’s rays, though he wore the night itself like a cloak of umbra.

Madara leaned forward until he was pressing Hashirama onto his back, and Hashirama let it happen, finding both comfort and exhilaration in the familiar song and dance. Impatient fingers already were pulling his nightclothes aside, all while Madara sucked bruises into the skin covering his throat. But there was something else Hashirama wanted. 

“Can I see you this time?” 

Madara paused and pulled away slightly, and Hashirama could feel his eyes studying him, the darkness not a handicap for his inhuman senses. “Sure.”

Hashirama’s breath hitched as twin beams of scarlet light cut through the darkness, which further parted to reveal the rest of Madara’s face. The rest of his form came soon after, and Hashirama’s eyes greedily drank in every minute detail. He folded his hands into the wild mane of hair, almost as black as the shadows around them, loving the coarseness and how, much like its owner, it refused to stay where it should. 

Greedily, Hashirama let his hands, and later his mouth, follow the path traced by his eyes, roaming appreciatively over lithe muscles, the pale skin marked with scars that Hashirama sometimes asked about even though he never received a straight answer. As one hand trailed over a criss-cross scar across his ribs, Madara grabbed his wrist and pulled the hand to rest over where his heart should be. His other hand reached up to Hashirama’s face, the pad of his thumb rubbing across his lower lip. 

His crimson eyes with their strange pattern, etched in black, were as mesmerizing as the rest of him, even more so when they began to swirl, the black markings drifting around the pupil hypnotically as if floating on a sea of red. He released his hold on Hashirama’s wrist to intertwine their fingers, and they laid there for a long time, exploring each other’s bodies with hands and lips, never mind the fact that they already knew every inch of skin by heart.

The darkness ebbed and flowed around Madara’s body. Hashirama wasn’t exactly sure how it worked—he wasn’t even a hundred percent certain of what Madara was—but he knew that where Madara went, the shroud followed. It took a certain amount of effort for him to push it away from himself—even now, sweat beaded his brows, his face pinching a bit whenever the shadows began to close around him. Hashirama was struggling in his own way, fighting his eyelids’ urge to drift shut with every move Madara made, every place he touched, but he kept his eyes wide open, too selfish to let the gift of both feeling and seeing his Madara go to waste.

Chapter Text

This was all Sasuke’s fault. Naruto just knew it. He didn’t know how, but it was much easier to point the finger at that smug jerk than to question Naruto’s own poor decisions. 

Scrambling to grab something, anything, to barricade his home’s locked door with, Naruto tried not to panic at the blows rattling the door frame, accompanied with grunts and growls—every once in a while interrupted by the same entreaty, roared in a deep, booming voice: “LITTLE GENIN, LITTLE GENIN. LET ME COME IN!”

With every piece of furniture he owned—which really only amounted to a table and a single chair—piled in front of the door, Naruto knew there was nothing to do but to wait out the Big Bad Fox.

It had been less than a month since Kakashi-sensei told his three genin that they needed to build homes for themselves. Naruto had built his out of straw, figuring that the less time he wasted on his house, the more time he’d have for training. Sasuke had called him an idiot, but now, as his perfectly fine (but not exactly solid ) house swayed back and forth and the door rattled on its hinges, Naruto was kind of wishing that he’d spent more time laying a sturdier foundation.

Again, the nine-tailed fox howled, “LITTLE GENIN, LITTLE GENIN. LET ME COME IN!” 

Naruto yelled back, “NOBODY’S HOME! GO AWAY!!”

The pounding on the door ceased abruptly, and Naruto sagged in relief. He was a bit surprised the the fox believed the lie, but he supposed bijuu were just that stupid.

“In that case…” Naruto really didn’t like the new, quieter tone that fox was taking. “I’ll huff… and I’ll puff… and I’ll BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN.”

Naruto laughed. “Yeah, good luck with that, pal. There’s no way that a stupid fox could–”

After a noisy, deep inhalation, the fox huffed and puffed, and, to Naruto’s horror, the straw walls came crashing down around him. He ran as fast as his short legs would carry him. His breath came in short, ragged pants by the time he was pounding on Sasuke’s door.

“What do you– Hey!” 

Sasuke was shoved aside as Naruto barrelled past him and slammed the door. He took a second to secure the lock, then crouched by the window so that only his eyes and spikes of blond hair were visible. He shuddered as he saw nine orange tails rippling in the wind while the fox ran up the hill separating him from Sasuke’s house, which, now that Naruto was able to look at it properly, was made of wooden sticks.

“Naruto.” Sasuke grabbed his arm and attempted to yank him up, but Naruto flailed until he gave up. “What are you– Wait, is that a–”

“Nine-tailed fox.” Naruto’s voice was barely more than a whisper. 

Sasuke took one look at the sharp teeth and glowing red eyes before he, too, ducked and hid below the window. 

“What did you do?” Sasuke yell-whispered. 

“I didn’t do anything,” Naruto hissed. “I was at home, mindin’ my business, when this guy started pounding on my door. Sasuke! He BLEW. My. House. Down.”

Sasuke blinked twice. “Like, blew it down? As in–”

He was interrupted by a pounding on the door. A few seconds later: “LITTLE GENIN, LITTLE GENIN. LET ME COME IN!”

“NO ONE’S HOME!” Naruto shouted back, and Sasuke slapped a hand over his mouth.

“You idiot. He’s gonna know someone’s here if you yell, loser.”

“You’re the loser,” Naruto shot back. “And I don’t see you coming up with a plan.”

“LITTLE GENIN, LITTLE GENIN,” the fox roared once more. “LET ME COME IN!”

Naruto yelped and tugged at his hair. “What do we do, what do we do?”

“Calm down.” Sasuke looked around. “Luckily, I’m not a moron that builds his house out of freaking straw, so we should be safe.”

“ALRIGHT,” screamed the fox outside. “THEN I’LL HUFF AND I’LL PUFF AND I’LL BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN.”

“Hmph!” Sasuke crossed his arms. “Only a loser builds a house that can’t withstand a little–”

The fox huffed and puffed… and the stick walls rattled violently, then tumbled to the ground. Naruto and Sasuke exchanged one look before they sprinted off as fast as their legs would carry them. Both of them were wheezing by the time Sakura’s brick house came into view, and they didn’t bother with knocking, barging in and slamming the door closed behind them. They stumbled over each other as they both reached for the lock.

Sakura, who had been reading quietly, leapt nearly a foot in the air at the commotion. When she registered the fact that it was only her teammates, she slammed the book down and prepared to lay into them for barging in and disrupting a peaceful day off. “Sasuke, Naruto, what in the–”

Pounding on the door cut her off mid sentence. “LITTLE GENIN, LITTLE GENIN. LET ME COME IN!”

The blood drained from Sakura’s face. “What is that?!” she squeaked.

“Nine-tailed fox,” Sasuke explained quickly. “We don’t have houses now, by the way.”

“What?”

“This thing,” Naruto jabbed a finger in the fox’s general direction, “is a blowhard! He huffed and puffed and blew both our houses down. I gotta admit, I’m not sure we’re safe here.”

Sakura scoffed. “I’ll have you know that my house is–”

“I thought my house was safe, too,” Sasuke interrupted.

“And my house was just fine,” Naruto snapped. “This thing is a monster!”

The fox called out again, “LITTLE GENIN, LITTLE GENIN. LET ME COME IN!”

“Nobody’s– mmph!”  

Sasuke again clamped a hand over Naruto’s mouth. “Shut up, loser! He knows we’re in here. We need to think of a plan.”

While the three squabbled over what to do, the fox’s impatience grew, until he once again bellowed, “I’LL HUFF AND I’LL PUFF AND I’LL BLOW YOUR HOUSE DOWN!”

“Yikes!” Naruto braced his arms over his head, ready for the third house to collapse on him in one day.

The fox noisily sucked in a lungful of air and huffed and puffed and…

Nothing happened.

Naruto and Sasuke shared a look of shock as the fox drew in air and huffed and puffed and… again, Sakura’s house remained unshaken. By the time the fox’s third attempt failed, they were celebrating. 

But then, the fox announced, “FINE! I’M COMING DOWN THE CHIMNEY!”

“The chimney?!” all three genin cried at once, round eyes falling on the fireplace. 

They could hear the scraping as the fox scaled the side of the house, and thinking quickly, Sakura piled wood into the fireplace while grabbing her teammate’s attention. “Sasuke, light a fire!”

“Right!” He went through the hand signs as quickly as he could. “Fireball jutsu!”

He exhaled a ball of fire, which the logs caught and turned into a sizeable blaze just as the fox lowered his gangly body through the chimney. His feet landed square in the fire, and he leapt into the air, straight out of the chimney, and ran, with a limp and singed tails, off into the distance. 

The three little genin never saw him again.

Chapter Text

Madara’s world crumbled within the span of a waltz.

He’d known this day—the long anticipated one in which Hashirama was introduced to the woman he was expected to marry—would be difficult to bear. It was the burden of their station in life, unfair though it was. 

Hashirama didn’t get a choice as to whom he would marry. Madara’s bride would be chosen by someone else as well, and much sooner than he would like. Too soon, he would find himself in a loveless union, duty-bound to produce heirs to protect the Uchiha legacy. (What was there to protect if they weren’t even allowed to pursue a joyful existence?)

He had assumed the same joyless future awaited Hashirama, but then again, he should have known better. Unlike Madara, who merely (and barely) weathered life’s disappointments and misery, Hashirama made his own happiness out of whatever situation was thrust upon him. He was the spark of joy Madara needed to prevent him from spiraling into despair—and he’d soon be taken away. What would become of Madara then?

The music swelled and retreated, and Madara watched Hashirama smile brightly at the woman in his arms as they spun through the steps in perfect harmony. She was beautiful, Madara had to admit, regal and refined in an emerald ball gown that contrasted with and complimented her coloring. Her red hair, twisted into elegant braids atop her head, shone like a beacon, drawing Madara’s eye back to the couple every time he tried to force his attention elsewhere. 

Hatred, undeserved but unavoidable, twisted in his gut each time his eyes drifted back to where her gloved hand rested in Hashirama’s. Madara could barely breathe around the lump growing in his throat.

Several dances later, Hashirama found Madara rooted to the spot where he had left him. The lump in Madara’s throat constricted painfully when Hashirama smiled, breathless and dizzy, clasping a hand on his shoulder as he said, “Mito is wonderful. I can’t believe I was so nervous.”

Though it had crumbled already, Madara’s world continued to shrink as he let go of the final dregs of hope he had foolishly held on to.

Chapter Text

Madara threw his weight to the left, but he wasn’t quite quick enough to avoid Hashirama’s sword. It caught on his right sleeve, almost completely severing the lower half from the rest of his mantle. The cut from where the blade had bit into skin was shallow. A thin line of blood materialized and trickled down Madara’s arm as he prepared his next attack. 

Hashirama should have been focused on readying himself to counter said attack, but his eyes followed the crimson dribble as it trailed along Madara’s forearm. By the time he realized what he was seeing, Madara had lunged forward. Hashirama barely had time to parry his blow, his mind still reeling from the sight of a mark, vaguely resembling a leaf, approximately three inches above Madara’s wrist.

“Wait!” Hashirama’s entreaty did not earn him any reprieve. Madara continued his assault, his scythe nearly piercing Hashirama’s solar plexus before Hashirama was finally able to catch his wrist and force it to drop from his hands. “I have to show you something.”

It was clear from Madara’s eyes that he expected treachery, but he shoved Hashirama away by several feet and waited. His body remained taut and ready, muscles tightly coiled, prepared to spring into action at the drop of a hat.

Hashirama’s sword clattered to the ground, and he pushed up his left sleeve to reveal a leaf-shaped mark. The perfect mirror image of the one on Madara’s right arm.

Madara tensed as Hashirama approached, but his curiosity won out. He allowed Hashirama to press their arms together. As soon as the marks came into contact, Madara was overcome by a glowing sense of completion that he’d never realized he lacked before. The sun and moon shifted, his world narrowing to a single focal point—the other half of himself.

Before he could make sense of all this, a cry from the other side of the battlefield doused the warmth bubbling up inside. Madara’s head snapped toward the source, and he watched in helpless horror as Izuna collapsed to the ground, felled by Tobirama’s katana. The roar of the skirmish dimmed to a tinny whine in his ears, his world ending just as soon as it had begun.

Chapter Text

Madara carded through the pages of the thick script in his hand, already immersing himself in his next big project. His current film, Shinobi, was almost a wrap. Just one more scene to shoot before it was left in the post-production team’s hands, and it was a short one at that.

A knock on his trailer door pulled his eyes away from the script just in time to see the door swing recklessly open, none other than his co-star Senju Hashirama striding in to disrupt a quiet moment. He took one look at the front of Madara’s script and flashed a toothy grin. “I thought shooting wasn’t set to start for another year?”

“Yeah, well,” Madara tossed the script onto the table next to the couch he was sitting on. “Some of us like to come to work prepared.”

Hashirama tossed himself down onto the cushion next to Madara, crowding into his space. “And some of us like to come to work while the script is still fresh in our minds.”

Madara snorted. “Just admit that you’re a lazy bum who puts everything off ‘til the last minute.”

“Maybe…” Hashirama’s smile turned coy as he looked down at Madara’s costume, a navy blue (almost black) mantle tied at the waist with a yellow sash. “I’ve gotta hand it to you—you can make something as baggy and shapeless as that look good.”

He scoffed, but Madara felt his cheeks warming nonetheless. “Enough with the flattery. Out with it—what do you want?”

“Can’t I just pay a nice compliment to someone I love?” Hashirama leaned his cheek against his shoulder, and Madara pushed him off, glaring down at the makeup smudged on the dark fabric.

“Now look what you did.” Madara tsked as he stood. He undid the sash and pulled the mantle off to hang it on the costume rack. Karui was going to kill him when she saw it, but he didn’t have to deal with her much longer. 

He prickled uncomfortably at feeling someone at his back, and sure enough, Hashirama’s arms wound around his waist a mere second later. Pressing his lips against Madara’s ear, he murmured, “You look even better with it off.”

Madara tried to turn around, but Hashirama’s arms held him in place. “Hashirama,” he warned.

Hashirama squeezed a bit tighter. “If you want me to let go, you’ll have to make me.”

Rising to the challenge, Madara pinched the underside of Hashirama’s arm, making the latter yelp and pull his arms away. Madara took advantage of the chance to duck out of his grip, grabbing a bottle of water from the fridge on his way back to the couch. He tossed one toward Hashirama, and a small part of him was sad that Hashirama reacted in time to catch it instead of letting it smack him in the head like last time. 

Hashirama plopped down onto the couch a few seconds later, and was again attempting to attach himself to Madara like a limpet. After several attempts to swat his hands away failed, Madara resigned (more happily than he would ever admit) to letting Hashirama pet his hair, nuzzle his neck, plaster himself to his side. Madara would groan and complain, but he loved the attention, loved how physical Hashirama’s affection manifested. He finally asked, “What’s got you so clingy today?”

“Nothin’...” The impish grin Hashirama was trying to hide said otherwise, so Madara dug his elbow into his side. “I dunno…Something about filming fight scenes with you gets me so…”

Madara raised an eyebrow. He was cast as the villain in Shinobi —and Hashirama as the protagonist. They had been training together for months, but there was something about being in costume, cameras rolling, that up and carried Madara away. He was surprised that Hashirama was equally swept up in the “life or death” battle they’d waged on screen.

Turning his head, Hashirama planted a chaste kiss on Madara’s neck…followed by one that was decidedly less chaste. Then another. And another. Madara let his hand follow the slight curve of Hashirama’s waist until it came to rest in his lap, grazing the hard lump forming under the loose-fitting pants of Hashirama’s costume.

Things were just getting interesting when a pounding on the door made them both jump. “Madara!” The assistant’s voice on the other side shouted. “We’re ready for you!”

A few minutes ago, Madara would have been thrilled to finally begin the last bit of shooting, but now he was pouting just as childishly as Hashirama.

Chapter Text

Hashirama had a problem, and that problem was that his next-door neighbor was hot. Unbearably so. With a lithe figure and black hair hanging down to his waist, he quickly became Hashirama’s favorite part of moving to this neighborhood.

But unfortunately, this hot neighbor was also impossible to strike up a conversation with. Hashirama had tried and failed more times than he could count to get more than two words (usually “good morning/afternoon”) out of the man, but no matter how interesting Hashirama’s comments about the weather, the local sports team, or any other asinine smalltalk were, the guy would simply give a curt nod and hurry off as though he were being chased. Hashirama hadn’t even managed to weasel a name out of him, tight-lipped as he was.

Hashirama wasn’t sure which was more pathetic: hopelessly pining after someone who was clearly uninterested, or the bitter sting of rejection he felt, because everyone liked Hashirama! It was a frustrating predicament, but Hashirama was an optimist—and persistent.

He was sure that he had an entry point when, a few weeks after he moved in, Hashirama discovered his hot neighbor’s interesting, and niche, hobby. However, all conversations on this new front wound up being dead on arrival, just like any other topic he tried. All was not lost, though.

Because Hashirama quickly learned that, while his attempts to strike up a conversation over the waist-high fence separating their yards would fizzle out quickly, if he could keep his mouth shut, he could get away with surreptitiously watching his neighbor tend to the hawks housed in the mews he kept in his backyard. Always careful to lie low and keep enough of his attention on his gardening to remain inconspicuous (which, to be fair, he was very mindful of his plants), Hashirama loved watching the man work. It was much more than just feeding them; he often murmured words to the birds that Hashirama desperately strained his ears to hear. Once or twice, Hashirama was sure he even heard him humming while he tended to them. 

Hashirama would hate to be labeled a stalker, but he eventually became attuned to the hours during which his neighbor would be tending to the birds. And if his own gardening hours just so happened to coincide…well, it was surely just a coincidence.

One day, Hashirama rose from the kneeling position he’d been in for thirty minutes or so, wiping dirt and sweat from his brow with the back of his equally sweaty and dirty arm. He’d taken his time with the weeding, predicting that his neighbor would appear any minute now. Tossing his trowel onto the grass, he turned his head to scan the neighboring yard.

He did a double-take at the hawk perched on the fence, watching him with an aura of haughty indifference. Hashirama squinted at its sharp beak and talons, certain that he had seen it before. 

But of course! It must be one of the neighbor guy’s. He’d never seen any of his birds outside of the mews or weathering yard. Hashirama looked around one more time, saw that the bird’s owner was nowhere to be found, and came to the only logical conclusion, which was that he had to capture the hawk and return it to his neighbor. He’d probably be so thankful for Hashirama’s assistance that he’d— 

Hashirama’s mind went wild with the possibilities.

The hawk’s feathers formed a blue-gray gradient with a pattern of thin, curved, upward sweeping rows of white feathers on the right side of its face. A dramatic white stripe over its brilliant orange, almost red, eyes lent an imposing, almost judgmental, air. For anyone else, such a look may have been a clear warning to stay away, but Hashirama had a habit of ingratiating himself to even the unfriendliest of people. Now that he thought of it, the hawk’s expression bore an uncanny resemblance to its master—and that sealed Hashirama’s fate. If he could woo the bird, he could surely woo the man.

Keeping his steps slow and non-threatening, Hashirama worked his way toward the bird’s perch. “There, there…” His voice was soft and smooth, placating. He’d heard the neighbor speaking to the birds in a similar manner, even if his voice was much deeper. “I’m Hashirama, your neighbor, and I’m juuust gonna help you get home.”

Its eyes didn’t move an inch from Hashirama, and it sat a bit higher with every step he took. Hashirama walked even slower, recognizing the signs that the hawk was one wrong move away from flying away and being gone forever. Thankfully, it didn’t take to the air.

At least, not until Hashirama was less than a foot away. Once his hands began to reach for it, the bird’s wings flapped violently. Hashirama was just fast enough to hide his face behind his arms when it struck with its talons, which cut sharply through his thick flannel shirt. He winced at the sting when they grazed his skin, but all in all, he could have fared much worse.

“Obito!” Hashirama swore that he and the bird both turned at the sound of his voice. His neighbor was running the short distance from his backdoor to the fence. He called the hawk’s name two more times before it decided that Hashirama wasn’t worth the trouble. It fluttered over the fence and landed on the thick leather glove its owner had hurried to cover his hand with. 

As he strode toward the mews, Hashirama could hear him grumbling at the disobedient bird—“Obito,” he’d called it. 

Obito glowered at Hashirama the entire walk back, as if he were the one that had attacked.

The cuts on Hashirama’s arms smarted, but they weren’t bleeding. His shirt was ruined, the sleeves tattered beyond repair. He was still toying with the shredded flannel when his neighbor reappeared, hopping the fence easily and carrying a first aid kit.

He looked down at Hashirama’s arms and was visibly relieved to see he wasn’t bleeding out. “May I?”

A normal person probably would have quickly assured him that everything was fine, but Hashirama wasn’t above hamming it up to get the attention he’d been seeking ever since he moved in. He thrust his arms out and only winced a little bit when the cold antiseptic was applied, a true show of bravery.

Once he re-capped the bottle, Hashirama’s neighbor fixed him a stare that froze Hashirama to his core. His eyes were impenetrably dark, deep and passionate. To have them focused so intensely on him made Hashirama feel as if he were the center of the universe.

“I’m sorry about Obito.” Gods, his voice was deep and rich and Hashirama wanted to know what it sounded like screaming his name. “He’s a bit of a brat. Sweet in his own way, but always mucking up my plans.” A fond smile crept over his face as he spoke.

“It’s no big deal.” Hashirama shrugged nonchalantly, nevermind the fact that he had feared for his life (or worse, his face) only minutes beforehand. “I shouldn’t have gotten so close. It was stupid, but I didn’t want you to lose him.”

His neighbor’s eyes narrowed. “Hashirama, is it?”

It’d been months since Hashirama’s ill-fated attempt to introduce himself. His neighbor had barely tilted his head in acknowledgement that day. To say that Hashirama was surprised he remembered it now would be an understatement.

“I never got your name,” he said quietly. Those beautiful eyes released their hold on Hashirama, and he mourned the loss of their warmth.

A small smile played on the other man’s lips as he answered. “Madara. Uchiha Madara.” He suddenly frowned. “I’ve been wanting to talk to you for months…I’m sorry that it had to happen in this way.”

“You have?” Hashirama found it a bit hard to believe, since he’d been so resolutely ignored every time he tried to start a conversation. 

Madara’s face flushed a bit, and Hashirama had never wanted to kiss anyone so badly. “Sorry…I’m not good at talking to people. And you’re…” He glanced at Hashirama again and quickly looked away. His blush deepened.

Hashirama’s face split in a grin. Then, he sighed dramatically. “With these scratches, there’s no way I’ll be able to cook for myself.”

Catching on quickly, Madara barked out a laugh. “Come, then. I’ll buy you dinner.”

Hashirama made a mental note to thank Obito later.

Chapter Text

Spring is fickle. He’s forsaken the earth. Madara takes one look, as he reaches the surface, at the barren land, and sighs heavily. 

Despite what some may think of the deities, this god needs his sleep—and not getting it has considerably worsened his already bad mood. He’d been glad, at first, to bury himself in his work. Turning off the parts of his mind not used for processing departed souls may not have been a healthy way of handling loss, but it did keep Madara from dwelling on the past. Mostly. Sometimes.

But the sudden uptick in deaths had quickly gotten out of hand. Madara hasn’t had a proper night’s sleep in months because his workload has tripled to the point that he can’t keep up. Enough is enough.

He finds him in a small clearing within the dead forest. Leaning his upper body against a tree trunk, upon closer inspection, Madara can see that his torso has been melded to the wood. The hand that hasn’t disappeared somewhere within the bark is half buried in the dirt near his feet. He stares off into space, not even turning his head when Madara enters his arid glade.

“Hashirama.”

That gets him to turn his head. His face is sallow, his usually dark eyes a pale shade of yellow. He looks, at first, as though he can’t comprehend the fact that Madara is really here, standing before him with his arms crossed and an expression that he hopes is adequately stern. Irritation and anger brought him to the surface, but concern twists his stomach into knots as he takes in Hashirama’s haggard state. 

His fingers clench in the coarse black wool of his robes for a moment before he takes four steps to close the distance between them. Hashirama’s eyes are guarded as squats so that they are on eye level, but a bit of cautious hope shines through when Madara’s hand reaches out and carefully plucks the sticks and dead leaves from his matted hair. They fall to the ground one at a time, the air hanging eerily silent without the usual chattering of birds and insects.

Madara brushes a clump of hair away from Hashirama’s face, then reaches to cup the back of his neck. He hates how much better he feels now that they’re together, especially despising the sight of Hashirama hurting. He rests their foreheads together, breaths intermingling as orange-gold alstroemeria blooms around Madara’s feet.

“You can’t keep doing this,” he whispers, and Hashirama looks at him in a way that dissolves any anger Madara still had left in him. “I sent you away to avoid something like this happening.”

Hashirama almost smiles. “I told you I couldn’t let you go so easily.” He grimaces at the unspoken ‘but you could let me go.’

“It’s been hard for me, too.” Madara realizes that it’s a drastic understatement. He hasn’t eaten, hasn’t slept, has shuttered himself off completely to anything unrelated to work.

The world relies on Life and Death to provide balance, and that balance cannot be maintained if Hashirama spends his days down below. Madara holds him tighter, because at this point he could never drag himself away.

“We’ll find…a compromise.” Even as Madara speaks the words, it feels like he’s already sacrificed too much. He looks around at the desolate terrain and comes to a decision. “They can survive a few months without you. So…I’ll share.”

Hashirama raises a questioning eyebrow, so he continues. “You could spend half of your time here, and then–” It’s still not enough, but Madara allows himself the smallest of smiles. “I’ll keep you for myself the other half.”

Already, the foliage is starting to come alive again. Green blades of grass poke up from the dry earth, and Hashirama, with some difficulty, pulls himself away from the tree he’d merged with. He stretches his fingers and rotates his shoulder as he pulls his other hand from the ground. The fingers have branched off into roots, and Madara flinches as Hashirama tears the roots away.

Madara lingers in the realm of the living far longer than he should. He is already several months behind on his work, so one more day won’t do any harm. Careful not to touch anything besides Hashirama’s hand, even though he wears heavy gloves, he follows Hashirama around as he sets about repairing the damage his absence has caused. They walk mostly in silence; every once in a while, Hashirama will comment on a plant species of which he is particularly fond.

The moon is high in the sky by the time Madara finds the will to tear himself away. They embrace just outside the gates to his domain, fervent kisses promising everything they can have in the future. 

“Six months,” Madara murmurs into Hashirama’s shoulder.

“Six months,” Hashirama repeats, pressing a kiss to his forehead.

A short time, relative to their immortal lives, but almost too long to bear. 

Every year, Hashirama sweeps through Death’s gates before the first leaf hits the ground.

Chapter Text

“Are you stronger than my papa?” Rock Lee looked up with round, guileless eyes.

Kakashi’s mask stretched as he smiled down at the four-year-old. “Well, maybe–”

“There’s only one way to settle it!” Gai interrupted, and Kakashi held back a sigh. Lee’s eyes sparkled along with his father’s excitement. “What we need, Kakashi, is a youthful, hot-blooded challenge!”

“Rock, paper, scissors?” Kakashi proposed, holding a fist out in front of himself hopefully. In the other hand, he held a book that he probably shouldn’t be reading in the presence of a child.

Gai shook his head. “While I do love an invigorating rock, paper, scissors challenge, we need a real test of strength this time.”

Pumping one fist in the air, Lee clamored onto his father’s lap excitedly. “Papa, what will show who is the strongest?”

Gai ruffled a hand through the boy’s glossy black hair, cut into the same bowl-shape as his papa’s. It had been just the two of them for most of Lee’s short life, and to say that Lee idolized his papa would be a drastic understatement. He was almost a carbon copy of Gai—but he also insisted on dressing like him. Today (and most days), the two were dressed in green from head to toe—in some lycra monstrosity that Gai had, on more than one occasion, attempted to present to Kakashi as a gift.

“I think,” Gai flashed a sparkling smile as he placed his right elbow on the table, “today’s challenge should be arm wrestling. Whaddya say, Eternal Rival?”

“Fine.” Kakashi tried to sound indifferent, but he could feel his pulse speeding up as he gingerly placed his well worn copy of Icha Icha Paradise aside. He was much more competitive than he liked to let on. Bringing his own arm onto the table, he wrapped his fingers around the back of Gai’s hand. Lee crawled over onto his own chair, allowing his papa to lean forward, his narrowed eyes locking with Kakashi’s as the tension mounted.

Lee braced both hands on the table, thick Gai-esque eyebrows furrowed. He may have been young, but he understood the momentousness of a face-off between rivals. Maybe one of these days, he would convince his preschool classmate Neji to be his Eternal Rival. Then they could be like Papa and Kakashi and have super fun challenges to prove their friendship!

Kakashi and Gai looked down at their linked hands and then to Lee, who knew exactly what to do. “Papa! Kakashi! Ready…set…

“...GO!”

Both men sprang into action, arms flexed and locked eyes blazing with the thrill of the challenge. Their fingers ached in protest of being squeezed so tightly, but still they dug their elbows into the table and pushed with all their might. Kakashi’s left hand squeezed the edge of the table, his feet firmly planted below. 

Lee watched in consternation, unsure of who he should root for. Of course, Papa was his favorite person in the whole world—but Kakashi was so cool! He always snuck Lee candy when Papa wasn’t looking, and, as far as Lee knew, he was the only person in the whole world who was as strong as his dad. Also, Papa often made silly rules about what would happen if he lost a challenge. Last time, when he lost a foot race around the block, he walked on his hands for a whole day, and that was pretty funny.

In the end, love for his father won out, and Lee clapped his hands together. “Go, Papa! You can do it!”

Heart melted by his son’s enthusiasm, Gai’s concentration slipped the tiniest bit. Kakashi pressed forward…but faltered before he could secure his victory, feeling the tiniest bit guilty for taking advantage of a lapse in focus caused by fatherly affection. His hesitancy cost him dearly—Gai’s arm surged forward and before Kakashi could brace himself, the back of his hand was smacking the table with a loud crack. 

“Yay!” Lee threw his arms around his Papa’s neck as Kakashi massaged his right hand with his left. “Papa is the strongest ever!”

Gai stood, giving his son a bear hug and twirling him around until his head felt woozy. When he set him back on his feet, Lee wobbled a bit, giggling as the room spun around him. “Alright champ, it’s bedtime.” Pouting, Lee opened his mouth to protest but was silenced with a pat on the head. “It’s past your bedtime already, so off you go.”

Lee tried (and failed) to stifle a yawn as he went to find his pajamas. As he disappeared around the corner, Gai turned to Kakashi with narrowed eyes. “This one isn’t going on the tally.”

“Why not? You won.”

“Because you held back.”

“I d–” Kakashi cut himself off with a sigh. “Let’s just go again after you tuck him in.”

Gai gave a two-finger salute before following his son down the hall.

Chapter Text

Ino’s tongue peeked out between her teeth as she curled a piece of a yellow ribbon on the edge of scissors. With a few minor tweaks and a squinty-eyed look-over, she decided the annual aster bouquet was ready to go in the fridge until the customer came to pick it up.

She slowed her pace as she approached the register, so that Sakura could take a look at it after handing a customer their change. Sakura raised a pink eyebrow, the corner of her lip tugging the tiniest bit upward as she pretended to be unimpressed. “The colors are nice, but don’t you think the bow’s a bit small?”

Ino met her teasing with a half-hearted scoff, knowing that she had the superior eye for detail. She and Sakura had been friends since childhood, but this flower shop was Ino’s family business. While Sakura was just here to earn a few bucks over summer break, Ino had much more experience (and better taste) in floral arrangement and would be taking over the whole shebang as soon as her mother retired. 

“It may be small compared to your forehead.. Billboard Brow.”

Sakura rolled her eyes. “Can it, Ino Pig.”

“Sporting more than an A-cup doesn’t make someone fat,” Ino shot back. With the hand that wasn’t holding the arrangement, she meant to do a sweeping gesture to highlight the curves that Sakura lacked.

But when she swung her arm out, the back of her hand collided with a face.

“Oh my god!” Ino nearly dropped the vase in her hands as she spun to see a man, roughly her and Sakura’s age, clutching his nose.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry…” Ino let out a litany of apologies (and then curses) as she thrust the flowers toward Sakura. Her hands hovered nervously over his shoulders until he could straighten himself out, releasing his nose—which, thankfully, wasn’t bleeding.

He gave her a small apologetic smile, as if he were the one who had smacked a stranger in the face. Ino’s embarrassment compounded as she got a good look at him, because damn. He was…really cute. Not exactly classically handsome, what with his complexion being alarmingly pale, almost gray. But he had large, dark eyes with the longest natural lashes Ino had ever seen. His hair was dark, too, starkly contrasting sharply with his alabaster skin, and his features were delicate and refined, almost doll-like. 

As much as she wanted to put this humiliating ordeal behind her and never see the victim of her violent gesticulation again, Ino felt an inexplicable pull, a sudden urge to know him better. Any man comfortable enough in his own masculinity to wear a cropped top (and to wear it that well, wow) couldn’t be too bad, she figured. The butterflies in her stomach turned to stone as soon as he opened his mouth.

“No worries… pig.”

Sakura snickering broke the tense silence. “Sai, you can’t just say things like that to someone you’ve never met before.”

It took several seconds for Ino’s brain to catch up. She blinked at Sakura twice. “Wait, you know this guy?”

“Mhmm.” Sakura nodded, her expression deceptively innocent. “Sai and I were partners for a term project in Dr. Yamato’s plant biology course last semester. I told him he should come by sometime.” She was careful to leave out the real reason she’d invited him.

“Sorry.” Sai was scratching his head, his eyebrows furrowed together. The apologetic smile he wore seemed much more genuine. “I read in a book that it’s good to call people by their nicknames.”

Sakura rolled her eyes. “I told you, Sai, that books can’t teach you how to act around people.” Sensing an out, she took Ino’s aster arrangement to the back, leaving the two alone.

“What kind of books?” At a loss for what to do with her hands, Ino settled on placing them on her hips.

Sai spoke to her shoulder. “Um…Well, they’re books for dealing with social anxiety.”

“Oh…That must be hard.” Ino was a social creature. She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have trouble talking to people, of all things. “It’s good that you’re trying to improve yourself…though I might agree with Sakura that books leave out a lot of the finer details.”

“So I’ve been told. It’s just–” A bit of pink appeared on his cheekbones, and it may have been the most adorable thing Ino had ever seen. “You’re just really beautiful, so I—I didn’t know what I was saying. Sorry.”

Ino decided that this is it and whipped her phone out from her back pocket. “I’m gonna help you,” she announced.

“Huh?” Sai’s eyebrows rose as she typed. “How’s that?”

“Call it ‘exposure therapy,’ if you will.” She held her phone out to him. After looking at it in confusion for a few seconds, he finally understood the cue and reached out to take it. “After a couple dates with me, you’ll be well on your way to talking to other people, too.”

Her phone nearly slipped out of Sai’s hands. “Dates?” 

“Yup. Now hurry up and put in your number.” If she wasn’t so passionate about floristry, Ino might have been a psychologist. She was positive that she could be helpful to her new, shy friend.

A head full of pink hair peeked out from the backroom door, but neither Ino or Sai noticed Sakura silently congratulating herself for her top-notch sneaky matchmaking skills. Cha! I knew it!

Chapter Text

“It’s about damn time!” Madara roared from above, crouched on a half-demolished building. Sirens screamed in the distance.  “I’ve been waiting, Hashirama!”

Expression furious, Hashirama jabbed a finger in his adversary’s direction. “I’ll deal with you later!”

Madara’s expression fell. What good was it to fake your death and make a grand reentry as a supervillain if the hero who used to be your best friend wasn’t going to give you the time of day? With an exasperated huff, he leapt to the ground and sat cross-legged as Hashirama, a.k.a. Father Nature, rushed all the innocent bystanders off to safety. Heroes and their dumb, backwards priorities.

When Hashirama was finally ready to fight, Madara wiped the dust from his billowing black cape. Vines were already springing from the ground around Hashirama’s feet, ready to go on the offensive or defensive, depending on Madara’s next move. Madara didn’t move yet, just watched him with a slightly crazed smile. “You may have gotten rid of that terrible haircut, Hashirama, but your fashion sense is still atrocious.”

The words hit Hashirama like a slap in the face, and he sagged into a depressed heap. “All this time, and you just insult me?”

“You’re a grown man in a spandex onesie. You deserve it.”

Hashirama’s shoulders straightened, and the smile slid from Madara’s face. Still, neither moved to attack. Hashirama decided to address the obvious. “You were dead.”

Madara’s grin was back, wider and sharper than before. “Indeed.”

Despite the destruction Madara had already wrought—not to mention what he would do if left unchecked—Hashirama felt a swell of excitement at seeing an old friend again. Heart thrumming, he felt himself smiling as well. “And I don’t suppose you’ll tell me how you did it?”

“Not yet.” Madara dropped into a fighting stance. “Let’s dance, and when you’re begging for mercy, I will reveal all. The secret to a great monologue is…” Hashirama rolled his eyes (despite still grinning) as the silence dragged on for a beat or two. “...timing.”

He sprang forward as the word dropped, and Hashirama leapt to meet him. Blow for blow, wood gripping limbs, fire destroying wood. Hashirama had missed the dance more than he was willing to admit.

Chapter Text

Kakashi lags behind, nose buried in the book that he isn’t really reading. He watches as Rin steps around Obito, straightening his moss green vest, and the unscarred half of Obito’s face stretches into a smile. Rin returns it, that special, small grin reserved for each other. Kakashi looks away, feeling suddenly like an intruder.

“Hey, Kakashi.”

He looks up at the sound of his name and finds Obito grinning at him. “You haven’t told us about your team.”

“Yeah,” agrees Rin. “They must be pretty good if they passed your test.”

Both Rin and Obito are leading their second genin squad, their last batch of students having graduated to chunin last fall. For three years straight, the genin assigned to Kakashi failed to measure up to his expectations, but this year’s group…they didn’t exactly solve the bell test, but they stumbled upon the answer nonetheless. Kakashi is very laid back in comparison to the way he was when he, Rin, and Obito were first assigned to a squad, but he still has high standards. 

He looks at Obito’s scars, touches his own eyepatch with the pads of his fingers. How many years has it been now since he learned that invaluable lesson? Shinobi who break the rules are scum, but those who abandon their comrades are even worse scum. Obito barely escaped death that day, and it was then and there that Kakashi resolved to live like his father. He’d rather meet Sakumo’s end than mourn comrades, friends, he could have saved, even if it meant breaking the rules.

His friends break apart to flank him. Obito clasps a hand on his left shoulder, while Rin hugs his right arm. “Come on.” Rin’s voice is teasing. Tell us all about these genin that have impressed our Kakashi so much.”

Kakashi sighs, but behind his mask he’s smiling. “Gai wants to meet for dumplings, so come along with us, and I’ll tell you all about it.”

As the golden light of sunset filters through the gingko trees above, Kakashi can’t help but feel that life is incredibly good.

Chapter Text

Neji tosses and turns for a long while before resigning himself to getting back up. He blinks wearily at the bedside alarm clock (almost two a.m.), then pulls his hair back into a low ponytail. Draping a warm jacket across his shoulders, he makes himself as comfortable as he can on one of the metal chairs on his balcony. The metallic seat chills his legs through his pants, but it’s not unpleasant.

Across the courtyard, he can see a lamp is on in Lady Hinata’s room. She should really be getting some sleep—although he supposes he really isn’t one to talk. According to Hinata, Neji worries too much. She’s called him a “mother hen” more than once. His mouth twists in a frown. Surely he isn’t overbearing so much as protective of his younger cousin—and for good reason. A small voice in the back of his head that Neji absolutely refuses to acknowledge wonders whether his overprotective tendencies are a form of penance.

When they were small children—Neji couldn’t have been older than four, and Hinata three—a group of Kumogakure mercenaries had attempted to kidnap Hinata. Neji’s father had been killed as he fought to rescue her from their clutches, and for many years, Neji resented her for that fact. It was unfair, and it shamed Neji to no end to think of all the times he had scorned his cousin, how often he went out of his way to be rude (if he wasn’t just outright ignoring her).

Something changed during their early teen years. Hinata was kind and painfully shy. She accepted Neji’s ill feelings toward her for years without complaint. Oddly enough, it was when she finally put her foot down, told Neji in unequivocal terms that she wasn’t going to be his punching bag anymore that he finally grew to respect her. When he learned the full depth of her compassionate heart and quiet but steely determination, their bond grew and deepened until Hinata became more like a little sister than a cousin.

She is his best friend, his favorite person in the world, and Neji now understands how his father could die for someone without question or complaint. Because he would do the same, for Hinata.

Movement near the exterior wall catches Neji’s sharp eyes. A figure, clad in orange of all the colors for breaking and entering, hops over the wall and presses himself against it. The way he looks around to be sure he’s in the clear would be comedic if Neji wasn’t fuming at the incompetent guards who couldn’t even keep this imbecile out. Neji assesses the situation and decides that stealth is the best approach for apprehending the intruder—probably an assassin.

His plan to approach sneakily flies out the window when he sees the yellow-haired, orange-wearing assassin pause below Hinata’s room, look around once, and begin scaling the wall. Neji springs into action then, leaping from his own balcony and shouting as he sprints across the courtyard. The intruder yelps and pulls himself up onto Hinata’s balcony, Neji immediately clambering on after him. Somehow, their voices and subsequent scuffling does not wake any of the manor’s other inhabitants, which infuriates an already outraged Neji, because where the hell are the guards?!

Neji has the other guy pinned with one arm behind his back and his cheek scraping the floorboards when Hinata’s door flies open. “Neji! N-Naruto…”

He opens his mouth to assure her that she is safe, but then Hinata is suddenly shoving Neji off of the intruder. His grip slips and the intruder is able to weasel out of his grip. Hinata places herself between them, wearing that look she gets when she’s set her mind on something important.

Placing a hand softly(?!) on the intruder’s chest, Hinata ushers him into her room before Neji can protest. When the door slides closed, she toys with the strings of her hoodie. Neji casts his gaze toward the other courtyard-facing rooms, feeling annoyed with everyone being able to sleep through what could very well have been an attempted assassination or kidnapping.

Hinata looks up at him after a few moments with watery eyes. “Please don’t tell my father, Neji.”

“Tell him what? Oh, don’t tell me that–! Hinata, honestly?!”

She shrinks into herself, her cheeks bright red, but she nods. “I’ve been seeing Naruto for a few months, but…I don’t think Father would approve.”

“I don’t approve,” Neji says indignantly. “Just who the hell is this guy? Why is he sneaking around and—and—” His face is growing hot, as well, and he can barely speak around his anger. 

“I don’t care if you approve!” Neji recoils from the vehemence of her tone. Hinata’s hands are balled into fists at her side, and her pale lavender eyes have taken on a determined glint. Some softness returns to her expression as Neji gapes at her. “I…I love him, Neji. Please don’t tell anyone…Not yet.”

As much as he wants to wring this Naruto’s neck, Neji can’t say no to her pleading eyes. “Alright,” he finally agrees. “But if he hurts you–”

“He won’t!” Hinata looks offended that he would even suggest such a thing.

“But if he does…” Neji takes her hands in his and gives a soft squeeze. “I want you to know that you can always come to me. I may not approve…but I trust your judgment. Promise me you’ll tell me if you need help?”

Tears well up in Hinata’s eyes as she throws her arms around his neck. “I promise. Thank you… big brother.”

Neji returns her hug, patting her hair and praying to whatever gods may exist that he isn’t making a terrible mistake. Before he takes his leave, he glares at Naruto, who is conspicuously peeping through the curtain, and is secretly delighted at the look of terror it earns him. “Be safe,” he says quietly, and then he’s climbing over the railing, his meddling assistance no longer needed.

Chapter Text

They meet in the usual spot beneath a canopy of cherry blossoms. Moonbeams drift down to the earth between petals and branches, casting a halo on Kurenai’s dark hair. With gentle fingers, she plucks the cigarette from Asuma’s lips and tosses it aside. He doesn’t complain, just rests his hands on her wide hips and leans in for a kiss that she gladly concedes.

“You’re late,” she chides.

He grunts. “Koharu and Homura wouldn’t let me leave until they’d lectured me yet again about ‘behavior befitting my station.’”

“They’re right.” Her smile is deceptively sweet, her eyes wicked. “You shouldn’t be out here playing around when your wedding is tomorrow.”

“Ha, ha.” His voice is dry, but he smirks. “My bride will just have to deal with me having a last little bit of fun before I’m shackled down for life.”

“Poor thing…” Kurenai captures his lips again, and when she pulls away her brows are pinched in concern. “What will she think when she finds that, whereas she expected to wed the Hokage’s handsome, refined son, she gets a chain-smoking, philandering cad who couldn’t keep it in his pants on the eve of his wedding?”

Asuma shrugs. “She shouldn’t have had such high expectations of a man she’s never met before.”

They stare at each other for a second—and then simultaneously burst out laughing.

“I suppose I should be playing the blushing ingénue,” Kurenai muses. “Though I have to say, I’m not entirely opposed to you making an honest woman out of me.”

“Nah, you’ll always be nothing but trouble.”

She swats at his chest. “If that’s the case, I’ll tell my parents to fuck off, just like I always thought I would when they inevitably tried to force me into an arranged marriage.”

His arms curl around her lower back, drawing her flush against his chest. “Hold on now. I didn’t say you weren’t worth the trouble.”

“It was implied.” 

Nuzzling into her neck, he peppers light kisses all over her smooth skin. After a while, he pulls back to look into her crimson eyes, as mesmerizing today as they were a decade ago. “I love you.”

She smiles sweetly. “I love you, too…but don’t forget that I’ll be pretending not to know you tomorrow.”

“We’ll see if you remember that after you’ve drank way too much sake,” he says, with a stern ‘I’ve told you over and over again’ expression.

“You don’t get to lecture me about having a drink–”

He makes a disapproving sound in the back of his throat.

“A few drinks in the evening, when no one has ever seen you awake without a cigarette in your mouth.”

“Alright, alright.” He hangs his head. “It’s our last night of being single, so let’s not fight and just get back to disappointing our parents.”

“Deal.”

Chapter Text

Ino stared hopelessly at the evidence board in front of her. Newspaper clippings, crime scene photos, facsimiles of the three postcards with cryptic messages the killer (or someone claiming to be the killer) had sent to the local news station. It was Ino’s job to identify possible motivations and connections, but the lack of consistency across crime scenes made it difficult to pinpoint anything. Even the M.O. varied from victim to victim, the only evidence that the crimes were connected at all being the details, unknown to the public, that the perpetrator had mentioned in the postcards.

She could feel a headache forming behind her right eye.

Soft footsteps sounded against the carpet before a pair of arms wrapped around her midsection from behind. Sakura rested her chin on Ino’s shoulder, pressing a kiss to her cheek when Ino turned her head. “Any luck?”

Ino groaned. “I can’t get a read on this guy, other than their obvious megalomania. ‘This world will know Pain.’ What the hell is that supposed to mean, when in the same breath he talks about bringing about world peace? Some of the victims are criminals, sure, but others are grannies or kids that definitely aren’t obstacles to whatever his warped vision of peace is.”

The building was quiet, almost all of the detectives having left before midnight. Ino wouldn’t be able to sleep as long as her mind was buzzing with what kind of person would indiscriminately kill teenage boys, elderly women, and everything in between.

“Come on.” Sakura sits on the edge of the desk and beckons Ino away from the frustrating board. 

With another irritated groan, Ino turns and walks away, leaning her weight on Sakura’s shoulder. Sakura winds her arms around her waist, and Ino closes her eyes at the feeling of her fingers gently combing through her blonde, waist-length hair. They’re both so tired, drained from too many stressful days and sleepless nights. With a surge of petty anger, Ino resolves that, as soon as this asshole is behind bars, she and Sakura are going to stay in bed for three days straight.

“I’ve been thinking…” Sakura’s voice pulls Ino out of her daydream of binge-watching that show they can never get around to. “It’s gonna sound crazy, but…do you think it could be more than one person?”

Ino pulls back to look at her with a frown. “I thought we ruled that out when we got the second postcard?”

“Well, I’ve been puzzling over the forensics, and the more I think about it being at least two people…it makes sense?” She rises from her perch on the desk and points at a photo. “The crime scene where they found Victim Four. We have a bootprint, men’s size fourteen. But then–” She points at one of the more gruesome photos. “Victim Two was a bit tall, six-foot-one. We can tell from the angle of the stab wounds that his assailant was no taller than five-three. Based on the details our postcard sender wrote, they were present at both scenes. Yet I find it hard to believe that someone that short has such large feet. I mean, they’d look like clown shoes on someone that size.”

This is it. Ino is having a breakthrough. She grabs a legal pad and begins scribbling down notes that no one but her will be able to make heads or tails of. Every few minutes, she looks up at the board, squinting at her own handwriting, the hand holding the pen tapping impatiently as she thinks. Thirty minutes later, she slams a hand on the desk and looks up at Sakura with triumphant—and somewhat crazed—eyes.

“It’s six people.”

Sakura looks at her like she’s insane, which was to be expected. “How can–”

“Just trust me. I’ll explain everything. Actually…” She frowns, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “It might be seven. The one who sent the postcards might be the ringleader.”

As Sakura pulls up a spare chair, Ino surmises that they will be in the office all night—but at least the loss of sleep won’t be in vain this time.

Chapter Text

For the first time in months, Konan’s heart doesn’t feel like a black hole. It’s too good to be true. She ran out of tears somewhere within those months, but new, fresh ones roll down her cheeks in warm, fat droplets as her hands reach up and cup his cheeks.

They’re ice cold.

He watches her with eyes that are different than before. Where there were once rich, deep brown irises that burned with passion and kindness, now there is no warmth—and no sclera. Surrounding the pupils are concentric circles, all shaded lilac.

The most jarring difference besides the eyes is the piercings. There are three in a row that go straight through the bridge of his nose, two that are shaped like fangs through his bottom lip. Each ear has six cuffs along the outer edge, in addition to the industrial piercings that stretch from lobe to anti-helix. Nagato had explained these to her while he was devising the blueprints. Rather than serving any aesthetic purpose, these metal bars conduct electricity. It wasn’t ideal, but she’d conceded that it was the only way to make this plan work.

“Is something wrong?” His voice is the same smooth, deep baritone, and yet something is amiss. It’s too flat, devoid of the measure and cadence that Konan has known her entire life. He says something else, but Konan can’t hear over the wrong, wrong, wrong! her mind is screaming as he looks at her with those cold, inhuman eyes, his skin under her fingertips chilly with the pallor of death.

He reaches his arms around her lower back, her ear settling against his chest. There’s no heartbeat. Another reminder that this is not him. With soul-crushing despair, Konan is forced, for the first time, to admit that Yahiko is dead.

She gathers her resolve to look at his face again, and the incline of its head, the slight scrunching of the eyebrows—it’s an expression almost akin to concern. The real Yahiko wouldn’t watch in silence; he’d have a joke to snap her out of it, or promises brimming with so much sincerity that they are impossible to doubt. 

Konan reaches up to kiss its icy lips, and she can feel the buzz of the electricity that animates his body. A choked sob rips itself from her chest when cold fingers wipe the tears away from her cheeks. She lets it hold her as she falls apart for several long minutes, and when she can finally withstand no more, she calls out to the empty room. 

“Nagato…we’ve made a huge mistake.” She wipes her nose on the sleeve of her lab coat. “I can’t do this.”

There’s nothing but silence for a few moments, then the intercom cackles with the sound of Nagato’s voice. “Okay. I’m shutting it down…Konan?” She looks at the speaker, even though he can’t see her. He responds anyway. “I’m sorry.”

She doesn’t notice the soft humming noise, whirring like hummingbird wings, until it dies. The purple eyes that aren’t Yahiko’s dim, and his body slumps forward. Konan flees from the room as soon as the arms that have been holding her go limp.