Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of its characters, much to my eternal dismay.
Note: Contains spoilers up through chapter 647. Written for PikaCheeka's HashiMada contest.
The Eighteenth Charm
"I'm telling you, nothing good will come of this!" Tobirama huffed. "Wood and fire can't possibly make a good match."
"Whyever not?" Hashirama turned to him with the naive expression that Tobirama found absolutely infuriating, but which everyone else in the village seemed to consider endearing. He suspected this was due to an enemy village contaminating their water supply; it was the only reasonable explanation. "Wood is fuel for fire. It allows the flame to burn brighter and reach its full potential."
"Yes, but it's consumed in the process."
"Isn't that part of a Hokage's duty? To be consumed for the sake of his village if needed? Or for the sake of his precious people?"
"Does it truly matter who bears the title of Hokage? Everyone knows the instrumental role you played in the founding of Konoha." The elder kept his voice level and calm, seeming completely unperturbed by the fury seething across Madara's face.
"Does it matter if our clan retains its rightful standing within the village? Does it matter if our old enemies in the other nations see us willingly accepting a subordinate role? No, I suppose it doesn't matter, if one is a withered old crone instead of a true shinobi," Madara spat back.
"But isn't this what you and Hashirama-dono have been seeking together? A way to end the conflicts that used to plague our clans, to build a better future for our children. Hashirama-dono values your advice, so we can be sure that we won't be shut out of the decision-making process. Allowing someone else to hold the official title of leadership is a small price to pay so long as that is true."
Madara snorted. "Do what you want," he said in a disgusted tone. "Let your fires be doused, if you care so little for the Uchiha name."
After Madara left, Hashirama developed the habit of staring into fires. Whether it was the flame of a lantern, a celebratory bonfire, even a funeral pyre, he gazed into the orange brightness until tears gathered in his eyes.
The sound of the door sliding open and soft footsteps on the porch made him turn from his contemplation of the coals smoldering in a brazier. "I'm sorry, Mito. I didn't mean to wake you."
"You did not wake me," she replied, "our son did." She rubbed her rounded stomach. "Judging by the way he kicks, he'll grow up to be the greatest taijutsu master in the Five Countries." She padded over to him and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'm worried about you, Hashirama."
"Why? I'm in fine health." He flashed her his most brilliant smile, but Mito could see the falseness of it. I should know better than to try and fool her.
"Madara-san's departure has affected you deeply. It isn't..." She searched for the right word to say. Healthy? Right? She finally settled on, "It isn't good for you."
"I know," he answered. After his earlier denial, she was surprised by how easily he acquiesced. "It isn't fair to you. It never has been. To be honest, there are times when I've been amazed that you were willing to stay here."
"That isn't what I mean at all!" Mito's eyes flashed. "I'm not some starry-eyed girl, Hashirama, I know that our marriage was a political one. That's never been uncommon among prominent clans, and in the cases where it works, both parties have accepted that the other may hold onto...old affections. You have never failed to do your duty as a husband, and that is all I ask for."
Hashirama stared at her, eyes wide. "Mito..."
"I'm not angry because you're being unfair to me! I'm angry because you're being unfair to yourself! You've worked so hard for your dream, overcome so many obstacles, given up so much. If he was truly worthy of your love, he should have respected you for that, should have loved you for that. Just as I do."
In the years they'd been together, it was the first time Mito had expressed love for him, and once again Hashirama could only repeat her name.
"Instead he ridiculed your dream and left you. You shouldn't waste your time pining for him."
Hashirama knew she was right, but he still watched the flickering flames whenever he could.
Madara watched the falcon soar overhead, a squirrel in its claws. It landed on the gnarled branch of a nearby tree and began tearing into its meal.
He had always felt a certain kinship with the fierce birds of prey that hunted the mountains on the border of the Land of Fire, but today the majestic sight fell flat. He remembered Tajima telling him, "Should you ever fall in battle, your final duty to our clan will be to prevent our secrets from falling into the hands of the enemy." He hadn't really understood what that meant until the day one of his brothers immolated himself so that he wouldn't be taken alive.
Neither his mother nor his father had been able to comfort him. It had been an old woman of their clan who had finally given him solace. "We Uchiha are not just fire-users; we are fire. And when one of us dies by the flame, he is reborn like the phoenix into the next generation of the clan."
Phoenixes and falcons; surely both needed a place to rest when their travels were done? He glanced to the base of the tree where the falcon perched and saw the litter of tiny bones among the pine needles. This is his favorite spot, then. This was the tree that sheltered him when the weather turned foul. Its twigs would be woven into a nest by some enterprising female, and its branches would be scored by the tiny claws of fledglings. I had a tree like this once. Proud and strong and always reaching up toward the sun.
He pushed the thoughts away, impatient with his own sentimentality. That's the way a fool who still believes in false dreams would think.
Is this boy really an Uchiha? At first, Obito seemed more like Hashirama than like any of the clansmen Madara remembered. He had the same unshakeable conviction that he could mold the world into something better by sheer force of will. It was grating, not least because of the dull ache the boy's determined expression provoked in his chest.
"It's done," Zetsu told him, and recounted how Obito had slaughtered a dozen Mist-nin following Rin's death. He spoke of blood dripping from a Mokuton arch like rain, of a scream that echoed across the plain and startled birds out of the trees, of a black pupil in a red eye spinning into a deadly pinwheel.
Yes. He may wield the power of the Senju now, but he is an Uchiha after all.
Madara? For a second, his heart leapt; then his brain caught up and informed him that no, this was someone else. The hair was too short and spiky, the characteristic pouches under the eyes absent. But the eyes themselves, brimming over with anger and hurt...yes, those were Madara's eyes.
There was something of Madara in the brother the boy spoke of, too. The old Madara, the one he had met skipping rocks across the river. He remembered Madara and Izuna, fighting back-to-back, raging across the battlefield like an inferno. He remembered Izuna spending days and nights by Madara's bedside while the Mangekyou Sharingan ravaged his eyes. He remembered the lost look on Madara's face after Izuna's death.
When Sasuke spoke of his brother, the sense of deja vu was so strong it made Hashirama's head spin. He gave you his eyes, just like Izuna gave his to Madara.
Nearly eighty years had passed, yet it seemed like no time at all.
They had always played off each other, each collision throwing off sparks like flint and steel. Now they clashed over and over again, weapons catching before they sprang back to a safe jutsu-launching distance.
During one of these clashes, Hashirama had the absurd thought that he didn't like the Rinnegan. The pale lavender didn't suit Madara as well as the Sharingan's deep red, and the concentric circles that others might describe as hypnotic just made his eyes look blank.
It was't the eyes Madara noticed, but the skin. He knew that the fine tracery of cracks on Hashirama's face that made it look like delicate porcelain were mirrored on his own. It was perfectly appropriate, really, because each of them was falling apart without the other. It was only their willpower that kept them from shattering into a thousand fragments.
"The one who will do that...is me." Hashirama could hear the triumph in Madara's voice. I will be the one to save the world, is what he was really saying. I will achieve the dream you couldn't.
"Why does it have to be you?"
"Why do you have to do it all alone? Why do you have to bear sole responsibility for solving the world's problems? Why can't I help?"
Madara smirked. "By all means, if you want to help me depose Obito and make the God Tree bloom, be my guest."
"That's not what I mean! We..." Hashirama reached out a hand and Madara tensed, expecting an attack, but instead Hashirama simply laid his palm against Madara's cheek. "We were always stronger together than we were alone. We need each other, Madara. Even the proudest hawk needs a tree to perch in, and without the birds that shelter in its branches, what good is the tree? You say the world is broken. If that's true, let's find a way to mend it together."
Madara slapped his hand away. "We already tried that. Long ago, by that river, we tried. We built something new, something the world had never seen before, and what came of it? Three great wars, innumerable minor skirmishes, children ostracized because their elders sealed demons into them, boys being forced to kill their closest friends. Do you still think you can fix it all by smiling at people and asking them to work together? We tried it your way, Hashirama, and we failed." He turned and stalked away, down toward the battlefield.
"Maybe you're right."
It was one of Hashirama's particular talents to make his voice heard even over the cacophany of battle. Although he spoke those words barely above a whisper, Madara heard them clearly and came to a halt.
"Maybe there's no answer humans can know," Hashirama elaborated. "But that doesn't mean there's no answer." He pointed to the massive tree, its single bud quivering at the tip of a trunk that towered over the gathered shinobi as if they were so many ants. "That's the God Tree, right? Gods may know answers that men cannot. You and I both possess the power of Mokuton; we can merge with anything made of wood."
Madara didn't turn around, but he also didn't keep walking away. "You're saying we can merge with the God Tree? I already knew that; that's what I was planning to do."
"Yes, but I don't want to merge with it to make it bloom. I want to merge with it to access what it knows. To find the answer we've been seeking our whole lives."
"It will drain all of our chakra. We'll return to the Pure World."
"But I'm telepathically linked to the entire Alliance through that Yamanaka girl. I can communicate the answer to them before these bodies are destroyed! Besides...the Pure World is where we belong now. And this time we can go there together."
Now Madara did turn.
"We outlived each other, Madara. You can't possibly tell me that having survived me made you happy. I know it can't have, because thinking that I'd survived you didn't make me happy. All those nights, staring into the fire, because it reminded me of you..." He held out his hand. "This time, let's leave the world together. Let's save the world together. The way we should have done in the first place."
Madara glared at the offered hand, as if he suspected it might be a genjutsu. Then he slowly reached out his own hand and hovered it over Hashirama's for a few seconds. Finally, when Hashirama didn't pull back, Madara seized his hand, fingers sliding around it like the talons of a hawk around a sturdy branch.
Together, the two men walked hand-in-hand to the tree.
I know that I hung on a windy tree
On that tree of which no man knows
From where its roots run
A/N: The quotation at the end of the fic is from the Poetic Edda; the tree it talks about is of course the World Tree, Yggdrasil. The title of the fic is also a reference to the myth of the World Tree.
I feel like I've never been great at writing for prompts, so I hope this came out okay.