The worst thing about Kanto was its immense amount of dirt. It was a crime against nature how dirty it all was- no one could take two steps without their feet coming into contact with dirt. It billowed into dust when it wasn’t packed down enough and got into everything; clothes, packs, pouches. There was even dust on the inside of the cap to one of her ink bottles.
But what was worse than the dirt was what it turned into given any instance of water: mud. There was nothing Mito could think of that was grimier or more inconvenient and distasteful than mud. At least dirt could be brushed off- mud stained everything in sight and required a thorough scrubbing to get off. She could feel damp, sticky material squelching between her toes, probably ruining her sandals, and her trouser legs had completely changed color- from sea green to a muddy brown.
Mud was the worst. Whatever pungent smell that inconvenienced the populace by descending onto the air clung to it, folding itself into the dirt, made entirely worse by the moisture and smelling even more sour.
Stacks of smoke coiled towards the clouds in the distance in most directions, save for the one she was traveling in. They were indicative of one odor that was especially repulsive, the scent of death and the start of rot as bodies laid in the mud for hours or days on end.
She passed a tree, streaked with mud along one side of it, standing in the midst of others scarred with burns and slashes as if it had seen the last desperate effort of some person trying to flee a death in the dirt.
The world was a cruel place. It didn’t matter that Mito was young, she had already learned this truth through hard, hard ways.
People ate at each other. They always hungered for something, whether it was power, or superiority, or love, or pain; they tore each other apart to search for their emotions, and the result was always the same.
The trees broke, stopping abruptly when the ground became too weak to hold up their roots. It shifted into sand, ugly grey sand that was mottled and darkened by the mining in the area and the heavy amounts of smoke leaking into the air. Mito walked onto the berm and out towards the sea, stopping when she had reached a spot just a few feet away from where saltwater was just starting to lap at the shore.
She knelt down and picked up the tiniest rock that no one would have noticed, turning it over and rubbing away the symbol drawn onto the back. The air around her shimmered and distorted. It broke away and revealed a boat hanging back from the shore, anchored, and her brother standing there in front of her, his arms folded and one eyebrow raised.
“Well? Did you find anything?”
“Our outpost is completely destroyed,” Mito told him, a note of disappointment in her voice, but for the most part, stoic. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but this instance was particularly unfortunate. “The town we were trading with has been demolished. I found traces of battle and many bodies, but nothing of worth.”
Taro shook his head, displeased. “Then coming here was worthless.”
It wouldn’t have been worthless if Mito could have found any survivors.
Wordlessly, she walked out to the boat with him and climbed aboard. It was small, but large enough to comfortably fit four or five people with space to work.
A pair of eyes identical to her own landed on her as soon as she stepped aboard. Her sister looked up at her with a hopeful expression, one that still held some naivety, and Mito hated to crush it. “There was no one left, sister. Prepare to leave.”
Chiharu’s expression fell. “Not even one person? I can’t imagine…”
“Don’t try,” Taro told her, sounding irritated as he gathered the rope holding their anchor. “This country is riddled with war. It isn’t like home. Remember that.”
Chiharu looked away and down at the floor of the boat. She sat cross-legged with her back to one of the sides, long red hair tied back and a book in her lap that she’d shielded from view when she noticed them coming.
Mito walked over and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder, giving her sister a small smile of encouragement when she glanced up at her. Chiharu returned it, though it was dim. She got up, putting the book into the pouch on her hip, and set about helping them set sail.
The Land of Fire was their closest neighbor. Mito supposed the name was fitting, since it seemed to always be on fire. From what she’d heard, the spat between shinobi clans that had decimated Whirlpool’s contact had been from two minor clans, but much of the fighting was due to the Senju and Uchiha as well. Mito had never met anyone from either clan- only heard stories from the rare shinobi who made treks farther into the continent, and from her father.
When they caught wind, it didn’t take long to give their boat a boost of speed with their chakra and sail back towards the Land of Whirlpools in naught but an hour. For a civilian boat, it might have taken three or four. They had fuinjutsu that ran propellers on the underside, as well- an invention of Mito’s. Taro had been jealous when it had been implemented to their entire fleet.
The mountains of the island came into view in what felt more like minutes than anything else. Island it may have been, the Land of Whirlpools was a country in and of itself, and it was quite large. Even still, they were dwarfed by every other island in that part of the sea, and it was perhaps their proximity to the Land of Fire that had saved them from invasion once or twice. Those in the continent were much too preoccupied with fighting each other to worry about foreigners.
They glided into a path that led inland, past rolling hills and the towns in between. There was water in the center of the island, a giant lake of sorts, with smaller pieces of land within that the actual village was built upon. Some featured large bridges made of metal and wood connecting them, while smaller ones were connected by nothing but planks strewn together.
There were many docks, but the one Taro pulled into was attached to the largest center island, where the heart of village leadership laid. It was made like a miniature palace, a sweeping house up on a hill with guards posted outside the door.
When she climbed off their boat onto shore, Mito noticed Chiharu had filched something and had quickly stowed it away in the inside pocket of her protective vest. She raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. Taro was already stiff enough about off-island visits; Mito would just ask later, when they were done with their report.
Chiharu lagged behind them as they ascended the steps, carved from white stone. Mito walked in stride with Taro, which she knew annoyed him, which was exactly why she did it.
The guards nodded at them and opened the doors as they approached. Lit torches lined the walkway inside, even with the light shining in from the windows, and her father sat on a cushion at the end of the line, with an advisor saying something in low tones with a scroll in his hand. When he noticed them come in, he straightened with a respectful nod to them, a bow to her father, and disappeared into the doorway on the right.
“Mito, Taro,” her father greeted, then cocked an eyebrow and titled his head to see Chiharu behind them. “Chiharu. How did the mission go?”
“Quite abysmally,” Mito replied, before her brother could answer. “The town of Esero was destroyed before we even arrived. I found nothing but ash and dust there.”
Ashina grimaced. “I feared as much,” he said, placing the pipe in his hand into his mouth and breathing in slowly. He let out a small ring of smoke that dissipated before it went anywhere. “The land is in so much turmoil; I had hoped it had not yet reached the coast, but it seems no place is safe. Was there any evidence of the clans that were involved?”
“I found corpses denoting the Chinoike and Akimichi, and some unmarked bodies. Anyone alive had already cleared out.”
Ashina let out a sigh. “Very well. Thank you, you three,” he said, giving them a nod, and Mito folded her hands together behind her back as she pretended not to be eyeing the way Taro’s hands clenched. “You can go clean yourselves up now.”
They nodded at him in unison and turned to leave through the other entrance on the left. Beyond there was a hallway with windows peeking out into the gardens that led into the section of the manor that was their home, and not meant for business.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Taro turned to her with a frown. “You could have let me speak, Mito.”
“You could have added in anything you liked.”
“You know what I mean. I was the leader on this mission, so I should have given the report-”
“If you’d been meaning to, you would have asked me for all the details as we returned, and yet you did not, so how could you have?” Mito asked innocently, ignoring the way his face twitched. Behind her, Chiharu let out a quiet giggle, which seemed to irritate their brother even more. He shot her an irritated look, and she quickly shut up. “I was the scout, and I saw everything with my own eyes. If you’d like to scout next time, just let me know.”
Her brother let a deep frown flit onto his face and folded his arms. “You touted your skill as the stealthiest among us and jumped on the job for yourself,” he noted, a jab Mito couldn’t exactly deny. “It’s dangerous outside Whirlpool. I know I don’t need to tell you that. Stop jumping into things yourself- I’m the captain, and whatever happens to you is on my shoulders.”
“I appreciate your worry, Taro, but I do not need it,” Mito said, not trying to be altogether as uncaring as she had before. She did appreciate his concern, even if he had a clumsy way of showing it, but she didn’t like to be underestimated, either. “Next time, if you wish to give the report, gather the information first. Now, can I go take a bath, since I was the one crawling in mud?”
Taro grimaced at her. He gave her a jerky nod, and she turned to keep going down the hallway. It split into two paths: the side of the home in which she and her sisters lived, and the side her brothers did. She ducked under the curtain for her hallway and waited until she and Chiharu had reached their common room before turning to her with a raised eyebrow.
“All right, what did you get?”
Chiharu stopped cold and looked at her with the expression of a startled rabbit. “Huh?”
“You know what I mean. I know you sneaked something back,” Mito teased, kicking off her sandals onto the mat. “I won’t tell. What is it?”
“Oh.” Face heating, Chiharu took a glance around as if there was some sort of spy that may see. Hesitantly, she reached into her sleeve and withdrew a tiny purple flower. “I saw it on the beach. It was the only pretty thing there…I didn’t want to leave it behind, all alone.”
“It is pretty,” Mito agreed, gently giving one of the petals a stroke with her index finger. “Put it in my hot bed, perhaps it will grow again.”
Chiharu lit up. “Really? Thank you, Mito, I will!” She turned and darted off in the direction of Mito’s room, where an ornate box with stained glass shutters for a lid lived with a row of candles on one side. Each candle sat on top of a seal that funneled heat and chakra into the box and encouraged any plants Mito was interested in to grow, even if they’d been de-rooted.
Mito herself headed for their bath. The room was made with sterile white tile lining the walls and floor and windows in the ceiling to let out any steam. She stripped down in front of the mirror, grimacing at her filthy fingernails, and dropped her gear into a basket she knew a maid would come by to deal with later.
With a turn of the faucet, and aptly used fire jutsu, she had a hot bath going at just the right temperature. Letting out a sigh as she sunk into the tub, she reached up and let her hair out of its bun.
The heat worked out the knots and aches in her muscles and soothed the images of the day from her mind. There was a little wooden mechanism on the wall that activated with heat and automatically dropped some lavender into the water, and as the steam rose the scent of it replaced the smell of decay that was still stuck in her nostrils.
Mito hated it. She hated going, she hating seeing it, she hated it most when she heard the screams of those she couldn’t help, but the world- it was a cruel place.
A knock on the door put her on alert. “Come in,” she said, recognizing the chakra hanging around outside.
A face mostly obscured by bright red hair peered inside. One purple eye was visible; not much else. “E-elder sister?”
“Hello, Hanako,” Mito said with a smile, relaxing again. “How are you?”
“Oh, I’m fine…I thought I would come see how you are after your mission…did it go well?”
“It went…not as well as hoped, but it’s all right. Come now, don’t be a stranger, come past the doorway.”
Mito’s tone was lighthearted and teasing, but her sister still flushed as she stepped inside. She was dressed in her yukata for bed; it was already late, even if the sun was only starting to go down. “Would you like me to help with your hair?”
“I would appreciate it dearly.”
The younger girl hurried to roll up her sleeves and grab some of the liquid soap sitting on one of the shelves. She settled on the side of the bath behind Mito’s head, and she closed her eyes with a hum as the girl massaged the soap into her scalp and started to work out towards the ends.
After a few minutes of comfortable silence, her sister spoke again. “I heard that the clans in the Land of Fire are fighting even more viciously now,” she said, quietly. Her tone wasn’t anxious, but rather held a downcast longing. “I heard Father talking about the Senju.”
Mito let out a slow sigh. “What did he say?”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping…I just passed them in the hall. He just said that we wouldn’t be helping them, if their clan head asked for it…have you heard about their new clan head? The one who can grow flowers from the earth?”
Mito couldn’t help but smile. Of course that was the first thing Hanako thought of. “Senju Hashirama,” she said, and it felt like she was saying an omen. “They say his strength is legendary.”
“I suppose so…” Hanako went back to stroking her hair, taking a comb from a lower-hanging shelf and starting to rake through it. She was quiet for another minute. “The Senju and Uzumaki are cousins, are they not?”
“Yes, distant, but cousins. We both have quite strong life forces- although, the Uzumaki to a deeper extent.”
“I should think they may ask us to help them,” Hanako went on, growing even quieter. “Do you think that’s something we should do?”
“I don’t know, little one.” Mito lifted a hand out of the water and reached up to stroke her sister’s hand, making her pause. “Our clans have not held the same grounds for millennia. There are many things to consider. Any would call us extremely lucky, right now, to be able to live here relatively unbothered. It would affect everyone who lived here if we did get involved in those troubles.”
Hanako sighed. “I know.”
“But you still think we should help?”
“I…I don’t know. I feel as though we should, but only if it’s for the right reason…I’ve never met Senju Hashirama. What if he’s not a good person?”
Mito’s smile nearly became too wide for her face. Hanako was such a quiet person, but so philosophical, if people would stop to listen to her. “And how are we defining a good person?”
“Well, I would say someone who has others’ wellbeing at heart above his own.”
“In that case, I think you’re a good person, Hanako. Your desire is a good one.”
Hanako was fidgeting with the comb now. “I think you’re a good person too, sister,” she murmured. “I wish more people thought of whether everyone else was a good person or not.”
“Even if they don’t, just promise me that you will continue to do so. Don’t change for the world, my dear, not ever.”
Hanako set the comb down on the bathtub and folded her hands together, staring at the floor with a pensive expression. She didn’t say anything else, and didn’t get the chance to, as the door to the bathroom swung open with a bang.
“Sissy!” Emiko sang, skipping inside with a lavender-colored robe in her hands. “I brought your robe!”
Mito looked up and smiled at her. “Thank you, Emiko.”
“How did your mission go? How does the Land of Fire look? Did you meet any shinobi from other clans? What about the flowers there, were there any growing? Did you bring anything interesting back? What about Taro? Is there a reason he looked sour when he was going to his room? And-”
Mito laughed, lifting herself out of the bathwater and stepping onto the mat after she’d dried off. She took the towel Hanako silently offered her and dried off, then took the robe in her other sister’s hands. “Easy, I can’t think as fast as you speak. You’re so impulsive.”
“Just answer my questions!” Emiko insisted with a squirrelly jig in place, looking antsy. “I want to hear all about it!”
“It wasn’t as exciting as you think, Emiko,” Chiharu sighed from just outside the doorway. “It was rather boring, if I’m being honest.”
“Boring? Oh no!”
Mito just smiled as they rambled on. She let them distract each other as she tied her robe off, slipped on her bed sandals, retired to her room to get dressed and ended up back in the living room to lounge on the sofa, and they didn’t even notice she had left the conversation.