“Sweet Prometheus, come home
They took away our fire
And all that scarcity promotes
Is desperate men and tyrants”
— Dessa, “The Beekeeper,” Castor, The Twin
He stamps the snow off his boots on the wrapping porch when he gets to his grandfather’s house in the center of the compound, shakes the snow off his coat and his hair as best he can before clanking his way indoors.
There’s a way to be a silent shinobi in heavy armor, but it’s not when he’s about to step into a gathering of other shinobi, since all his cousins and older brothers have been called in for this meeting.
There’s something important the old man has to say to call them all together like this, since someone had told him about it on his way in through the gate, though he’s not sure what.
He bows once to the old man after he squeezes his way through the crowd and then scoots himself off to the side to listen to the proceedings.
Somehow, none of his female cousins have shown themselves. He assumes it’s work related, then.
But it’s not.
“I regret to inform you all,” the Old Man creaks, “that Sudare’s little girl needs a home.”
What’s wrong with the one she’s got? he thinks, before he remembers that his third brother’s been dead for a few weeks now and winter’s coming on.
Normally, though, the kid’ll have gotten picked up by one of his aunties or someone by now.
From what he remembers of that niece, she had to be older than five, old enough to start helping out around the house, and with the way everything this past year has been going, nearly every house would need all the extra hands it can get, even if it means another mouth to feed.
Not that kids eat all that much.
An uneasy murmur runs through the crowd as everyone either looks at each other or down at their feet.
“I am looking for someone who would be willing to raise her.” The Old Man starts turning his gaze on all of them, his mouth pursed grimly.
Funny you say that, old man.
He’s blood kin to all of them, but then again, his grandfather’s old, no longer battle ready and probably hasn’t the energy to run after a kid.
Children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren fill his halls.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spies his oldest brother looking away at his shoes.
There ducking behind a cousin, is his second brother.
He is the youngest of seven sons, and while adoption is typically a woman thing, this sort of cowardice is still stupid.
“What,” he drawls, pushing himself off of the wall. “We all mute in here?”
A dead, ringing silence follows as all eyes turn towards him.
“What,” he says again, suddenly angry that not a single man in this room has any lick of spine, “are you all looking at me for?”
“Oh damn it,” he says, suddenly filled with brimming, brimming anger and no impulse control left. “If there ain’t any other men in this room somehow, I’ll take her.”
He’s the youngest of seven sons, twenty-three and without a wife or dependents of his own.
He also has no idea how to raise a child, much less a girl child, and he’s beginning to feel as though everyone was just waiting for him to tie this noose himself.
But he’s said it already, so he just shoves his hands in his coat pockets and stomps out of the room to wherever they’re keeping Sudare’s kid.
She’s a scrawny little thing, dressed in someone’s patched cast offs, which are far too big for her, sharp around the chin and cheekbones, mostly out of a lack of food to eat than anything else he guesses.
He finds her near the kitchen, scrubbing someone’s washing while bent over a tub and washboard, with lye soap and boiled water, fingers red and raw.
“Get your things,” he mutters, still with his hands in his coat pockets. “You’re leaving with me.”
She looks at him for a long moment, flat gray eyes more sullen than appreciative, and he feels like he’s being judged by a microscopic child who can’t be taller than his thigh.
But that is stupid, and he scowls at it until she gets up and moves to a different room altogether filled with sleeping mats and spread out bedrolls, pulling out two other sets of clothing, some small trinket or other and a bedroll before tying it all up with the bedroll and turning back to him.
Well, that’s set then. “How old are you, kid?”
One of his aunts had shown him where she was, with a few curious glances and the mention that Sudare had named her ‘Touka’.
Peach flower, his Aunt had said.
Surprisingly pretty name for a sullen little thing, but his is a surprisingly religious name for an ungodly man, so…
An odd set they’ll be.
She holds up seven fingers. With how small her hands are and the fact that she’s still holding her pack, it’s a tall ask, but she manages.
“Alright then. You’re seven.” It’s a bit hard holding conversation with someone who doesn’t answer back, but he’s managing.
He picks her up, holding her vaguely against his hip like he’s seen some of the other people do when they’re carrying children.
“Ain’t heavier than a wet cat,” he mutters. “Just what has everyone been feeding you anyway?”
What with the way that other people had avoided adopting her even though she’d clearly been working and not throwing some sort of tantrum, he’d expected some ill fated omen of death or something.
But no, just a kid.
A couple cousins glance at him too hard as he stomps down the outside walk with Touka and her things.
“What’re you looking at?” He snarls at them, somehow, more angry than he’d been when he’d been in the room with all those family members looking at their shoes.
They scramble off.
He clanks and creaks his way through the compound and towards the two roomed shack he’d moved out to when he had the chance.
It isn’t much, but it’ll do. It’ll have to, since in the six or so years since he started living there, he still hasn’t gotten around to patching up the loose tiles in one corner of the roof or fixing the table like he’d planned.
Packed dirt floor. Front room with a table, two chairs and a stove.
Back room for sleeping in.
He’s even got a bed.
He doesn’t live here much, given that he’s often on the road, but it’s a house. It’s got a roof.
He sets her down, shooing her off to the back room to lay out her bedroll before he shoves wood under the stove, strikes a match and measures out enough rice and water to start dinner.
Should’ve stayed for dinner up at the big house. Might’ve made the rice last longer.
He stirs, water turning cloudy. Vegetables? There probably isn’t anything else edible in his house except the jar of fermented napa cabbage he’d traded Masugumi a day or two’s labor in her garden for back in the fall right after the first hard frost.
Where had he put the jar of napa cabbage?
He does not locate it on the table and resumes his search through the dusty corners of the small room and the only cupboard in the house.
If someone’s made off with it while he was gone he would skin them alive—
No, he’d left it in the other room, stuffed under the corner of his raised bed as a precaution.
He stomps over there to fetch it.
The child — Touka — jolts when he appears in the doorway, having been crouched in a corner looking at his sword rack with avid interest, but all she does is watch silently as he bends over and searches for the jar of fermented cabbage.
He isn’t much of a talker, but it seems like she’s even less of one.
From the other room comes the smell of something burning.
“Fucking shit,” he mutters before attempting to rescue the rice.
Dinner is the fermented cabbage and the half burnt rice porridge he’d been attempting to rescue with limited success.
She hauls herself onto the chair, tiny wrists peeking out from beyond the almost comically wide sleeves which either she or someone had rolled up.
“I’m Butsuma.” He tries not to mutter, but it still comes out somewhat half hearted anyway. “I’m your seventh uncle. Your father, Sudare, was my third brother.”
A cautious nod.
“And my sixth auntie tells me you’re Touka.”
Another firmer nod this time.
It’s like trying to hold conversation with a mud wall. At least he’s sure she’s getting it by the nods and the contemplative look in her gray eyes.
“Do you talk?” he asks, trying not to watch her too intensely. No one likes to be stared at.
A shake of the head this time.
Alright then. Doesn’t talk. Not that big of a deal.
“Can you talk?” That’s a different question altogether.
She hesitates for a moment, hands clutching her bowl of sad rice porridge, before hesitantly, she nods.
It didn’t look like she was too sure of herself on that one though.
Ah, dammit. He thinks. Now I know why no one wanted to adopt you.
“Well,” he says, “Ain’t no skin off my nose if you talk or not. Eat your dinner.”
She glances at her bowl dubiously and picks at the fermented cabbage for a bit before lifting the whole thing and seemingly tipping it into her mouth wholesale.
He prods at the rice for a bit before eating it.
Tastes about as good as he’d expect, which is not at all.
After dinner, he shoos her off to bed.
The winter daylight had fled them a while ago, and he only has so much oil for the lamp.
It’s sometimes easier to sell his allotment of oil from the clan to buy mission equipment or meat or food from someplace in town, since he doesn’t live much at home and he doesn’t need the light for much of anything.
…He’s going to have to rethink that priority again now that there’s someone living in the house nearly full time, isn’t he.
She wraps herself up in her bedroll which had been laid out on the floor, and he stares at the scene from the doorway for a long moment, trying to comprehend the situation before striding over to his bed and pulling off another one of the blankets to give to her. “Take this one too.”
It’d been a nice cotton one stuffed with goose down he’d bought off a travelling trader last year when the weather started turning.
She stares at it for a little bit, but doesn’t seem to respond.
He drops it on her with a snort and blows out the light to get ready for bed.
In the dark and with his armor stripped off, the cold seems more present. He pulls his coat back on and rolls himself into bed with the other blanket.
He lies awake in the dark, listening to the sound of his own breathing and her sniffles getting fainter. She’d started crying about half an hour after he’d blown out the lamp and rolled into bed, probably figuring that he would be asleep already.
But he isn’t.
Despite everything, and despite spending the last week or so out of the compound and on the road, he also misses Sudare-nii with a sharp and biting ache.
Back when they were kids, Sudare-nii had been the most likely to give him the time of day even though he’d been the baby kid brother with not much to offer.
They’d grown apart in age and differing specializations — Sudare-nii had ended up an assassin and met his end there at less than thirty-five years old, and he’d gone on his merry way as a bodyguard and frontline combatant — but somehow, hearing about how no one else had bothered with Sudare’s kid, however weird she might be, had clipped some corner of his heart he didn’t realize could still bleed.
She sniffs in her bedroll, turned away from him, shoulders shuddering.
Didn’t want him to know that she’s sad.
He falls asleep soon after, thinking about the details of the next mission he’d been contracted for, how long he’d be gone, whether or not he can afford to bring a kid along on it, the small amount of money he had socked away in a sealing scroll, whatever distant memory he has of his mother, rather than anything to do with the events of the day—
The working, brimming fury that no one else had bothered, no one else had cared—
When he wakes the next morning, there’s a small scrawny lump tucked against the small of his back, bedroll and blankets migrated in the night.
He doesn’t take it personally.
He unclips the hunting knife from his belt when he has to leave the next morning and passes it over the kitchen table.
“Anyone try to grab you, and you stab him in the gut, you hear?”
She tugs at his sleeve and makes the gesture for question.
“Do you know how to stab a bastard?” It’s not that hard, you just grab the handle and jab, preferably the gut because she’d probably be tall enough to reach, but she nods and makes the gesture for question again.
“Do you want to know who would try to come grab you?”
Headshake, question, point at him.
He points at himself.
“Me.” He thinks about it. “You want to know where I’m going?”
Very enthusiastic nodding.
He’d tucked his money sealed away in a sheet of paper under his armor. “Shopping, in town.” He pulls on his other boot.
She continues pulling at his sleeve. Gesture at herself, gesture at him.
“You want to come?”
He’d meant if she wanted to come with, not permission to come with but—
Fuck it, he’s not being outsmarted by a seven year old who can’t even talk. She can come.
The trip into town isn’t difficult, though it’s slower since she clearly only goes at a child’s pace, and he hasn’t gone soft enough to just pick her up and cart her there and back.
The marketplace in winter is an empty-ish place, the dominion of daikon and other root vegetables. Steamed buns and meat belong to teahouses and restaurants for the rich in bigger cities than this, where no one has much to sell.
It’s past slaughtering season too, so no chance of picking up any meat.
Not that he really trusts any meat he’s cooked unless he’s charred it to well done.
He picks out daikon and other root vegetables, haggles over more heads of cabbage. Maybe someone will sell him a chicken.
Or a bag of flour because he can at least turn flour into steamed buns reliably, even if he can’t do much else with it.
Or he could go hunting.
At least Sudare’s kid doesn’t look like she’s too upset by the purchases, peering at them from around him with more curiosity than distaste.
He’s going to have to either get used to the tugging in an attempt to get his attention, or he’s going to have to come up with some other way.
He’s too lazy to come up with another way at the moment, so tugging it is. “What?” he asks, while shoving his purchases into the storage seal.
Oh, yes, right. He looks.
She is pointing at another stall across the way… ah. The spices.
He shakes his head. “No money.” It’s not like they really need spices, though they’re nice to have.
Pickled peppers would be nice to have right now too, since the spiciness generally hides whatever unfortunate accident his cookery has gone through this time, but also no money for that either.
Rice at least is a monthly allotment from the clan based on the number of people in his household rather than something he needs to go out and buy, or whatever funds he has right now won’t cover that either.
She makes a walking sign.
He’d forgotten that Sudare was a thief too.
He makes a face at her, careful not to say anything since they’re still right next to the vendor before he turns and tugs her along behind him by the hand. She digs in her heels, but that doesn’t really matter in the greater consideration of things.
Halfway out of town he finally does explain it.
“No taking things from people.”
Buddha save him from his third brother’s thief child.
“We still gotta live here. That’s the closest town, you understand?” He picks her up by the back of her collar and shakes her. “Don’t even think about it.”
She pouts, arms crossed, but he continues tugging her back towards the house, and it’s not like she’s going to run off so maybe he’s winning.
He picks up something he typically wouldn’t for the next mission.
Assassination’s fast (or at least it’s supposed to be) and pays well (or it does typically) though it also comes with, well, a higher risk of getting dead.
And he’s not typically an assassin.
It’s not stupid if he gets money out of it.
He ignores the small voice that Sudare had used that reasoning too, and look where that got him.
Dead before age thirty-five is not where he is aiming to end up, but he still needs to fix the house and deal with the no food except sad vegetables and rice problem, and possibly money for seeds so that they can have a garden in the spring.
Every able bodied clan member put in a certain number of hours in the rice paddies every year from planting to harvest time, and it all gets distributed month by month afterwards from the central granary, but vegetables and seasonings and, more importantly, meat are for people who have large enough families to take care of that sort of thing.
He, being a lone bachelor previously, could acquire meat from either hunting or fishing or buying it off of a butcher in a larger town or in a restaurant dish when he is passing through since he didn’t have anyone to help upkeep a pig or any chickens.
He could go inquire with Masugumi about it, he supposes, what with spring coming on in a month or so and all.
And also no longer being a singular unit meant that there’s at least someone to watch out for a chicken or two while he’s out.
In any case, he slouches his way into a teahouse to meet with the client’s representative.
Better figure out where he’s going to have to get into and who he’s going to have to kill.
The cut on his arm hurts like a real bitch.
Granted, he’s lucky that he made it out with only a cut on his arm, and several bruises darkening on his shoulder and around his neck, since the person who did this to him ended up dead like the target he was hired to drop, but he’s still allowed to bitch about it.
An Uchiha had found its way into his relatively simple mission and fucked up his exit.
Something he’s going to have to report to the Old Man after this. Uchiha getting more militant and cutting into our territory.
Looks like there’s a bitch of a situation ahead when spring comes.
He doesn’t look forward to it, and he looks forward to the idea of explaining this to the kid even less.
This might take himself out of commission for a bit, but it’s better than forking over either the money or the labor needed to go take himself to a medic for bruises and a cut.
He winces, staring at himself in the mirror after he drops the henge.
It all sucks.
The kid gets all cut up about his injuries when he gets home and drops into bed after shedding his armor.
She’s not chatty — people who don’t talk rarely are, but he’s got a cousin or two somewhere in the family tree who manage to be chatty even without words, so he wouldn’t say it’s entirely out of the question — but she’s not silent either.
Sometimes she engages in tuneless, horrid humming completely unrecognizable as any song known to man.
Or at least to him.
Not that he knows a lot of songs.
Her mouth wobbles at the sight of him, before setting into a frown, hands gesturing at her own neck and then for a question.
“Mission.” He doesn’t know what he expected because despite the month or so they’ve spent living in the same house — and now he’s got money to work out what to do with fixing the house — he doesn’t really think she likes him all that much.
The worry is new though.
She frowns, focus shifting to his bandaged arm next.
“Mission,” he grunts and attempts to roll over, but that would be on his current bad arm.
Which means he’s stuck, being lectured by a child barely taller than his hip.
“What is this?” he asks no one in particular. “An intervention?”
A firm nod.
“Can’t I just lie here in peace?”
A very confident headshake.
He shuts his eyes. “I can’t see you.” He announces, mostly to the child. “Therefore I have no idea what you’re saying.”
A huff. She starts tugging at him far more insistently than before, huffing all the while as though she’s engaged in something of great effort.
He turns towards her, if only because that is the pathway of least resistance.
She hmphs at him as if that was what she wanted him to do all along and trots away into the kitchen.
Belatedly, he cracks an eye open. “How the fuck do you know what an intervention is?”
Are seven year olds supposed to know what that word means? He has no idea.
She’s no longer in the room.
“Where are you going?”
He crawls back out of bed. “Don’t tell me you started the stove fire; you’ll burn the whole house down.”
The look she casts him from where she’s blowing on the kindling is unimpressed.
She makes a shooing motion at him like she expects him to go back to bed.
He stumbles towards the kitchen table instead. “Look, you got me up anyway.”
She considers this and shrugs.
She still seems to know more about the state of the kitchen than he does, moving easily through the space despite being no more than four feet tall. She hauls one of the cabbages to the basin that doubled as the sink, scrubbing at it and picking off the bad leaf bits, before plunking it down on the table and hacking at it with the hunting knife he’d given her some time ago.
He watches her do it, more or less resigned to the fate of whatever cooking she’s about to come up with this time.
It can’t be worse than his, surely.
Water is boiled, the cabbage is boiled, salt is produced from somewhere after she climbs onto a chair and riffles through his cabinets — he hopes it’s not stolen from someplace because salt is expensive and he doesn’t remember buying any, but don’t ask questions if you don’t want answers — and cabbage is salted and rice is boiled and the whole thing is edible.
Even if he still wishes they had pork. Or chicken.
This family might be Buddhist, but he has no desire to be a monk or emulate one.
She hmms while setting dinner out, eyes on his face though she’s stopped frowning at least.
The food is edible. It’s more than edible — it’s halfway decent.
He mutters a curse under his breath. “I guess you’re cooking then, kid.” He’d been soundly schooled after all.
She looks up at him, shocked, but all he does is laugh. “What, you really want to eat my cooking all the time?”
She makes a face.
He continues laughing.
Ainoko blows into the compound one clear winter morning when it’s neither snowing nor threatening to snow. The sun’s a weak thing, no help in heating at all.
He’s attempting to figure out what to do with one wall of the house to seal it off further from the chill, and by his own regard he’s doing fairly well on that front when she arrives.
“Butsu-chan!” Ainoko waves at him, her voice carrying over the general sounds of life coming from the rest of the compound.
He glances down at his second oldest sister, who, at age thirty or so, shows no sign of wanting to settle down, start a family, or stop running from her debtors.
He knows for a fact that the Old Man has a headache and a half with the hounding of half a dozen merchants and bank accountants trying to find her, but they’re shinobi, and trying to pin Ainoko down is like trying to hold smoke.
Then again, he’s just glad he doesn’t have to deal with it.
“I’m busy!” He calls back, balanced precariously on a ladder in an attempt to reach the upper wall.
“Butsu-chan! I brought you food!”
He is not supposed to be swayed by this, but he’s spent a week or so eating various iterations of winter melon soup and rice, and he’s gotten tired of being a vegetarian.
Anything Ainoko’s brought has got to be wildly unhealthy just because she’s trying to bribe him.
He swings himself off the ladder. “What do you want?”
Everything near Ainoko that catches her fancy and isn’t hammered down is likely going to take a trip. But also generally, even if she’s friendly and outgoing, his big sister rarely does things for free.
She’s brought him something; that means she wants something.
“So mean of you.” She pouts and ruffles his hair. “I’m here to visit, not here to ask you for things.” She nudges him with her shoulder. “Heard you adopted Sudare-nii’s kid?”
He shrugs and shoves his hands in his pockets. “Not like it took much. Should’ve seen how Iromoya and Ryoutei couldn’t meet anyone’s eye.”
“Oh Butsu…You know they’ve got families. Another mouth to feed ain’t easy in these times.” Ainoko strides through his front door and looks round the kitchen. “You have no idea how to raise a kid.”
While he had thought of this before, he does not appreciate Ainoko attempting to tell him this.
“What was I supposed to do?” he snaps, shoving his borrowed hammer on the table. “Leave it alone? Much good that does.”
Was he supposed to stand around with his hands in his pockets like one of those cowards? He’s not a coward or one to back down in a fight. Let his older brothers be cowards, unable to provide for another mouth to feed. Let them shuffle their feet and look down, unable to offer a hand or take responsibility.
Ainoko sighs. “C’mon, you know I didn’t mean it like that.”
He knows she didn’t, but it sticks with him all through dinner anyway, food like sawdust in his mouth.
“This isn’t what it looks like,” he says this, mostly to ward off the bad feeling he has about the Old Man’s frown while looking around his house, but then again, the hysterical screaming girl in his grip, the bowl on the table, and the pair of shears in his hands really don’t do what he was thinking justice.
“Butsuma-kun,” his grandfather says, before sighing loudly in frustration. “What do you think you’re doing that’s causing all this dreadful noise?”
“I,” he sniffs and draws himself up to his full height while still holding onto Touka’s shoulder as she squirms and flails, “am trying to address the problem that Third Auntie brought up to me, since she claims that my ward is unkempt and grubby.”
“With a sharp object and clear disapproval?”
He feels himself withering under the disapproving confusion.
He doesn’t like it.
“Well, tell that to Third Auntie and her opinions then,” he grouses, throwing the shears onto the table with a sigh. “I wasn’t going to bother, but she kept getting my case on childcare and not doing my best for the child and what a failure I was.”
Touka squirms free, but she might as well at this point. It’s not like he can do anything about it, and though she’s a fast little thing when she wants to be, if need be, he can catch her again when the Old Man leaves.
She’s just seven, not like it’s hard to catch her again.
The Old Man stares at him for another, very, very long time. “Touka-chan?”
Touka shakes her head at him, locks flopping and falling in her face. He doesn’t see much of an issue with it, but the Old Man frowns at her.
“You do have to get a haircut.”
She puffs up impressively, frowning, her arms crossed over her chest. “HMPH.”
“It doesn’t have to be the haircut Butsuma-kun wants to give you.” Ah, so the Old Man is undercutting his parental skills now.
Touka peers at his grandfather cautiously.
“How about a nice ribbon?” Touka’s still watching the Old Man cautiously, as if considering it. “It’ll look cute?”
Ah, that completely undercuts it. She shakes her head no emphatically, frowning even harder than before.
She doesn’t want to be cute.
He tries not to laugh, but fails.
He plans to leave her his hunting knife when he has to leave again, but watching her with the kitchen knife cutting up cabbage makes him feel as though he ought to ask.
“Do you know how to fight?”
He doesn’t know if Sudare ever taught her, given that Sudare wasn’t the greatest fighter, but then, being an assassin was more about sneaking, hitting hard and then running away.
Catch an assassin when they’re not in control of the situation, and, well.
Sudare’s no longer with them.
She’d not arrived with any of his third brother’s weapons and didn’t react to him chasing her around the house like someone who knew any taijutsu at all.
She looks at him, face set in a scowl, though that seems like her default state, and shakes her head once, briefly.
He flaps his hand at her. “Well, get over here then. I’ll teach you how to use this knife.”
His hunting knife is a single bladed affair, about four inches long and drop pointed. Not fancy, but then, hunting knives didn’t need to be. It’s not exactly meant to be used for fighting, given that it’s better off skinning game, but he doubts anyone who’s after a child would know or care.
She scrambles over, an interested light in her eyes.
He pulls it from the sheath. “This is a knife meant for skinning game.” He glances round the kitchen. “But you’ll probably have more success stabbing a man with it than a meat cleaver.”
She’s small; the meat cleaver probably won’t do as much damage as it’s supposed to.
“Anyway, I’ll see what I can do about getting you actual weapons.” He’ll need all of his own weapons for this next trip out.
New weaponry will cost him a pretty ryo, but it’s not like he can do much about that.
“Now,” he continues, “you’re small, so you should probably run away screaming first if there’s someone trying to grab you, but in case you can’t run away, you can always scream and stab the person in the gut; that’ll shut them up.”
She nods, slightly more cautious now.
He ruffles her hair, newly cut with bangs that no longer got in her face. “Failing that, this is a skinning knife so it’s good at cutting. Go for behind the knees; that’ll also probably shut them up.”
She nods again.
“But really,” he gets up to go, “the easiest thing to do is run away screaming.”
He’s sitting in a restaurant sipping a warmed cup of tea while waiting for his meat bao and fish ball soup after a long and irritating mission guarding a particularly talkative merchant when someone else pushes their way in through the winter snow.
He considers throwing his teacup at the Uchiha who appears to be coming his way through the crowd of people outside also trying to avoid the winter snowfall, but that would be a waste of tea and of the cup.
It might also start a brawl and get him thrown out of the restaurant before he gets the food he’s paid for.
He resolves to put on a darker glower, though this doesn’t stop Uchiha Tajima from dropping into the seat across from him with a huff, a cold gust of air, and an answering glower.
“Cat stole your ears, Butsu-chan?”
As far as he’s aware, the Uchiha could definitely stand to get lost. And stay lost. Preferably far far away from him so they aren’t on the same page about being lost.
“Fuck off,” he mutters under his breath because he sees the waiter coming back with his bao. “This is my table, I paid for it, and you can wait in line like all the other people out there who want to come in.”
It stinks of sweat and too many human bodies in the restaurant and smells of horse manure and musty hay outside in the half hearted attempt at a barn for the traveler’s animals, but it’s the last stop out of town and the first stop in on the west side, and makes a mean soup and good bao, so of course with the ongoing storm it’s packed full.
Which means he’s paying good money to not split a table with an asinine civilian.
Which he frightened off by glaring really hard.
Unfortunately, no Uchiha worth their spit will be scared off by glaring very hard.
“Your pork bao, shinobi-san.” The waiter’s smile falters because he looks displeased, but he huffily pulls the plate of eight closer to him and starts figuring out which ones look like they’d stand up to being sealed the best — he’s got a kid at home, and while he’s worked it out for Azumaya to at least come in to check on the kid everyday, wouldn’t be fair if he’s out eating restaurant food and the kid’s got nothing but pickled greens, and the fish ball soup won’t travel in anything except his stomach, so.
He shoves about four of them into the sleeve pocket seal as the Uchiha watches, fascinated.
He thinks about it some more and shoves another two into the other sleeve pocket seal.
“Didn’t take you to be a pack rat, Butsu-chan.” The Uchiha’s voice has a bit of a singsong to it. “Saving your bao for the road when you’re hungry?”
“It’s good,” he mutters at the waiter while casting a withering glare at Tajima. “Tell the kitchen to get me my soup, and I’ll eat it and be on my way.”
The waiter nods, and slowly turns to the Uchiha. “Your order, Shinobi-san? So I can get it to the kitchen along with your friend’s?”
Both of them bristle at that idea, but Tajima spits out some order and coins exchange hands so that the man can be on his way back to the kitchen.
He ignores it, because it sounds disgusting and unappetizing.
All he wants is his soup.
Meanwhile, he shoves a bao into his mouth.
“Ah, that’s normal of you.” Tajima taps his fingers on the table, and Butsuma secretly wonders if it would be too obvious if he reached for his sword and chopped the whole hand off.
Then again, Uchiha hand in his fish ball soup? Disgusting.
“What’s normal?” He grouses between two bites of bao.
“Being an ill mannered pig.”
“You wanna say that again?” he asks, quietly, because he still can’t get kicked out of the restaurant before finishing his soup and his bao. “Because that sounds like fighting words from you, twig.”
As far as he’s aware, the Uchiha has more to lose here, having received no food, so if they start a brawl the Uchiha’s losing, even if he walks away with a broken rib.
“Best you can do?” the Uchiha asks airily, as someone brings him several meat skewers on a plate. “No wonder you have no game with the ladies, only a fool would look well upon you.”
He growls. “Is it your business to make business about who other people fuck, Uchiha? Or do you just like looking at it with those whirly eyes of yours because you can’t score anyone yourself?”
Even though he’d already decided that the Uchiha’s food must be disgusting — by virtue of it being something an Uchiha would like — he still ends up glowering at the food regardless.
His stomach growls.
He considers if a small child really needs six bao.
He also considers ordering more bao, but that would put him on the back foot in the battle to get out the door faster.
“How crass,” Tajima drawls as he pulls some of the meat off the skewer. “You’re so unbearably rude. I can’t believe I’m still talking to you.”
“Don’t get uppity with me. You’re no better than the rest of us slumming it out here.” The Uchiha are local landowners that live on the other side of the river, well away from the nearest town.
But because the two are clans with shinobi operating in closer quarters with each other than other clans typically do, and do not have a truce or an alliance pact, they come into conflict more regularly.
Technically, there is no official ongoing conflict and there is no reason for people to hire Senju and Uchiha in opposition to each other to stir up more conflict, but that is technicality.
In reality, well, Sudare’s dead, he murdered an Uchiha a couple months back, and there’s always some talk of vengeance for such and such and so and so around the communal buildings, even if they keep it out of earshot of the Old Man, and it’s mostly bitter mutterings.
“Look, Butsu-chan, having a crowd of flower girls chase you from the capital’s flower district isn’t exactly a sign of having game.” Tajima talks and chews at the same time, proving himself to be boorish and bad mannered.
“I’d like to see you do one better then.” He hasn’t ever met any brothel girls in the capital and doesn’t have the money to pay them for even half a night, but he doubts that Tajima knows or cares.
“I,” the Uchiha says with a great flourish of his meat skewer, “am married, and welcomed the birth of my very first son just this past month.”
“Was she blind?” He surprises even himself with his drollness. “Or were you the only man left alive?”
A vein bulges in the Uchiha’s temple.
He takes that as his cue to skip out before the rest of the Uchiha’s food gets here.
“These are for you.” He pulls the bao from his sleeve pouch seals and shoves them onto a plate before shoving the whole plate over to Touka.
In the end, he’d felt too guilty to even think about eating any of the six he’d stuffed in there again.
So there they were, six sort of cooled off meat bao.
She looks at him for a long moment, and tries to pick one off the top with her grubby little hands.
He squawks in protest and pulls her to the sink to wash them before pulling her back to the table. “Don’t eat with dirty hands, you hear me?” He shakes her slightly. “I ain’t paying to take you to a medic if you get cholera or dysentery or some other funky illness because you don’t know how to wash your own hands.”
She makes an aggrieved sound, but this time, he lets her pick up a bao.
She holds the rest of the plate up at him.
“I ate.” He did eat, but he still halfway regrets only buying eight instead of sixteen or more, even though that would’ve really eaten into their budget for the rest of the month.
It’s not like he can take back to back missions anymore, what with having to be home at least half the month to make sure that Azumaya doesn’t report him to the Old Man for child abandonment.
Isn’t like he’s going to abandon Sudare’s kid anyway.
Wouldn’t dare dream of it or his third brother’s going to be haunting his dreams with those big soulful eyes of his.
Touka shoves the plate up as close to his face as she can reach, scowling mulishly at him with her cheeks stuffed full of bao.
Why is he arguing with her again?
He wants to eat more bao. He desperately craves bao. He’d dreamed of bao doing a dance in front of him last night while rolled up in an old bedroll on the cold hard ground while the chatterbox of a merchant slept in an inn and nearly froze his fingers off.
He snatches one off the plate and takes a bite. “You happy now?”
Surprisingly, she nods at him, seemingly very grim.
They’re on the same page in that regard then.
Food is serious, not to be messed with business.
“Good.” He picks up another after inhaling the first. “You get three. I get the other three.”
She frowns at that, but something about the set of her mouth seems to be amused as if she’s having a private laugh at him.
He squishes her cheeks together. “Brat,” he says, but he’s pretty sure both of them know that there’s no heat to it.
No heat at all.
How odd it is that it’s been less than two months and yet this strange silent child has him fond.
And how odd it is that he still feels a weird, hollow ache in his chest at the thought that Sudare is gone.
He’d liked Sudare a sight more than any of his other brothers, and the loss mocks him from its place at the grave and the grayness.
He leaves it alone. Mockery doesn’t mean much from the voiceless dead.
He runs into Uchiha Tajima at the blacksmith’s, picking up the sword he had commissioned for Touka.
It’s child sized, no longer than her forearm, which raises a few eyebrows, and though he shoves it sheathed into his sleeve seal as quickly as possible — the Uchiha sees.
Damn the man.
“Butsu-chan, didn’t know you had a son?” The Uchiha throws an arm around him, their armor clanking.
He hates this man.
“Don’t got one.” He doesn’t have a son. He’s not even exactly sure where the Uchiha got the idea from, and he isn’t keen to find out. Who knows what Uchiha think. It’s all nonsensical, including the woman who agreed to marry this irritating twig of a man and stuck around for at least long enough to have a kid with him.
“Surely you don’t need a sword that small?”
There’s some sort of innuendo here, but his scowl doesn’t change too much, slightly deeper than it was before. “No, it’s clearly you who needs a sword that small.”
The Uchiha has the gall to laugh. “So prickly, pig.”
He throws off the Uchiha’s arm and flicks it away with the back of his hand, his knuckles slamming against an armguard. “Go fuck yourself.”
His hand swells as he walks home, hands crammed into his pockets.
In any case, the whole day is ruined, but at least Touka brightens intensely at the sight of a weapon.
Which doesn’t negate his feelings about having to run into the Uchiha again, but does brighten some small part of him that really does think that the cost of the sword was worth it.
The thing about Touka is that she’s small and therefore not exactly used to the style of combat that he prefers.
Which isn’t exactly sophisticated given that Ainoko once told him all he did was whale on people.
He rarely blocked or dodged and given that he preferred blunt force trauma, the Old Man once tried to give him a hammer instead of a sword.
He’d taken that for the insult that it was.
As it is, Touka is very small and probably couldn’t blunt force trauma a chicken much less want to.
Which means he’s going to have to come up with some other sort of fighting style to teach her.
It might involve strategy, which would involve having a brain.
They’d have to work on it.
Sudare had been an assassin, which means he made the landscape work to his favor, harmless until the killing blow. And while he didn’t want Touka to become an assassin…
(It pays to have more combat skills than the single blow.)
The thing about people is that if they have their guard down sufficiently, one strike well placed is almost always lethal.
He’s just never been very good at fitting him down into spaces that could be considered harmless.
And he’d been born angry and with fists, which did not contribute to becoming more harmless looking.
“Well,” he says, standing there, arms crossed while thinking about it. “Do you have any good ideas about what you want to do with this weapon?”
A jabbing motion.
He shakes his head. “You’ve got to have more than that.”
He’s survived this long primarily because he’s gotten very good at punching people, and also very good at running away.
She tilts her head, looking at him in a way that means he’s lost her again.
“Stabbing people is good,” he mutters. “But you’ve got to understand that that’s only good when you don’t stab people for a living.”
Who knows if she’d want to be a shinobi? She’d be safer not doing that line of work, and there’s probably plenty she could learn without ever having to pick up a weapon.
But he cares about the ways of the blade even if he doesn’t practice it in any way except bastardy.
And he would like it if she also knew about it.
“Do you even want to learn how to fight?” If she didn’t, he’s pretty sure he could attempt to have Masugumi teach her something. Probably for some sort of fee or other. She might also want his help moving the pigs.
Masu was good at that sort of thing.
Both things. More things than that.
Touka nods firmly, bouncing up and down, more excited than he’s seen her ever before.
Ah well, maybe the thrill will wear off after she’s eaten dirt a few times.
“Okay you do want to learn how to fight.” He thinks about it more. “But you’re too small to just whack people.”
Chakra and jutsu would be the great equalizer here.
People with more chakra tended to focus on ninjutsu.
People with less…
He’ll find her a teacher for that sometime when he figures out who would be best to ask since he doesn’t know any.
Someone in the clan of a thousand skills would know genjutsu, even though mastery of that, in theory, belongs to the Uchiha across the river.
Someone would know genjutsu and wouldn’t make the price of teaching it to her cost an arm and a leg off of him.
But that is a problem for a later date.
For now though, he can teach her to hit people.
And dispel genjutsu.
Uchiha are close and nasty like that.
He goes to see Masugumi after he sends Touka off to do whatever it is that small girls do when they’re not training to defend themselves.
She’s no shinobi, which means he makes sure to clatter when climbing onto her porch. It’s irritating, but she’s told him before that she’s surprised when she can’t hear him coming, so.
He knocks on the front door, shifting slightly. “Masu? Are you in there?”
They’ve known each other for a long time, some twenty years if not more, having been born in the same month all those years ago, and their mothers had been friends before the perilous falling out regarding some crockery and festival planning which means they had fallen out of contact until she’d been apprenticed to one of the aunties up at the Big House to learn woodworking at about age nine, and he’d been living up in the Big House by then, so they’d ended up seeing each other again quite regularly.
And it’s not as if anyone else up there was worth talking to.
“I’m in the kitchen, Butsu!”
He’d told her not to call him that, but unfortunately, old habits must die hard. Either that, or it amuses her that he’s annoyed by it.
Has her hands busy then, or she’d answer the door.
He finds her in the kitchen, busy, though not cooking. Instead, she is rooting what looks like peach tree cuttings with her sleeves rolled up, mud splashes up to her elbows, tiny flickers of chakra running down their lengths, as she presses them into the batch tray with quick flicks of her wrist.
At some point, she’d absently stuck a peach twig in her hair to twist it up into a loose bun as well.
It is attempting to break bud and produce blossoms. In her hair.
For as long as he lives, he’s never going to be able to get used to seeing that happen.
“And how have you and Touka-chan been?” She turns to look up at him, eyes wide like the river.
He shuffles his feet, his hands shoved into his pockets. “Fine, probably.” He’s still trying to figure out where his money is going that he can’t ever quite seem to find enough.
It’s not like he doesn’t earn enough to feed two people, it’s just that it never quite seems to fit.
“She’s not with you?” Masu looks around, as if trying to see if Touka will just appear, from behind him.
But he’s pretty sure that she’s gone to play in one of the fish ponds and hasn’t followed him up to Masugumi’s.
Not entirely of his own conscious thought, he’d thought to not introduce them yet.
For whatever reason, people tended to end up wordless near Masu, and he’s not sure how he feels about the whole thing. Even though Touka doesn’t talk so she’s already wordless by default.
“No, she’s gone off to play in the closest fish pond.”
She might end up coming back covered in slime, muddy, and dripping, but she has too much sense to drown, so it’s probably fine, unless someone complains about her disturbing the fish. He could probably glare that away though.
“Well, it’s nice to know that someone’s caring for you.” Masu smiles, briefly brushing her lips against his cheek. “You haven’t had to come see me for weeks now even though you’ve been in the district.”
“That obvious?” He shoves his hands deeper into his pockets. He should be angrier about this, because Masu has always been everything that he is not, the most ideal of his generation to have grown up in the Old Man’s house, but she carries herself so effortlessly, without a hint of judgement towards others that it would be rather hard.
He’s infuriated that she makes anger hard.
“I haven’t had to give you anything since the napa cabbage.” She shrugs, turning easily back to the peach tree cuttings. “Won’t you sit? I’ve missed you.”
That’s exactly like Masu too, her heart worn on her sleeve for the whole world to see and hear.
She talks absently about the spring planting and the orchards and the garden, flowers slowly unfurling in her hair. At some point, she puts the kettle on for tea.
The afternoon slips by him.
He gets back from a mission with the district in some sort of state.
At least, he passes the third relative staring at him with unfettered apprehension, and figures something’s up.
“Butsuma-kun?” One of his uncles, on the younger side, probably just a decade older than his oldest brother.
He eyes the man warily. “What.”
It’s not a question.
As far as he’s aware, he hasn’t done anything, but if someone else had done something, that’s hardly his problem.
“I know you’ve taken in Sudare-kun’s girl recently…” if by recently, one means the past six months or so because it’s starting to come on to summer now, and Touka’s turned eight already. And he’s turned twenty-four. “There’s been an incident.”
There’s been an incident.
His hand finds his sword hilt. “Someone hurt her?”
Whoever they are, when he finds the nasty little bugger, he’s going to let his fists do the talking.
“No.” His uncle shifts, uneasily.
“Well what’s the matter then?” If it’s about Touka, it’ll explain why everyone’s been staring at him recently.
If it’s not about Touka, then he has no idea what they’re on about. He hasn’t done anything, so make it someone else’s problem.
“Well,” there’s a pregnant pause. He tries to swat the silence away with a well placed rude gesture and it seems to have worked. “She’s gone and beat up Nokidoi-kun. They had to pull the two apart, but we couldn’t get a word out of her as to why, and she had to be restrained—”
“You did what?” Everyone knew that Iromoya’s punk kid was disgraceful anyway.
He stomps off.
“Butsuma-kun, what are you doing?”
“Fixing this,” he shouts back without turning around, making a straight path towards his eldest brother’s house as relatives scattered out of his way. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
Stomping is supposedly bad for the joints, especially when wearing full armor, but as he makes his way down the street, he finds that the catharsis of stomping now outweighed the potential joint problems later.
“Iromoya!” He roars, throwing open the door of his eldest brother’s house and watches as small children, dogs and a stray cat scatter away from him like feathers in the wind. “What have you done to my Touka.” He modulates his volume only slightly upon actually seeing his older brother, some twenty years older than himself this coming autumn.
Iromoya stares at him for a moment like he’s grown a second head. “What have I done?”
He is supposed to feel some kind of way about this, but all he feels is annoyance breaking into rage.
“You locked up my kid.” He muscles his way into the room, though he knows it’s not worth it to overdo it.
Bust a man up too hard in his own house and he grows resentment and all that.
That and, here on Senju land, everyone has (nominal) sovereignty inside their own house.
If it really came down to it, trying to knock out his eldest brother’s front teeth for locking up a child inside the man’s own house wouldn’t go well for him in the aftermath, when they both get dragged in front of the Old Man and have to give their testimonies on how the conflict even started.
“She tried to kill—”
“What’d your kid do then?” He moves forward, cracks his neck, hands behind his head.
He’s not reaching for a weapon, but doesn’t mean it doesn’t make his sword hilt clear. Not all threats needed to be in words, though it sure feels better to say them than to imply them.
“What do you mean what did Nokidoi—”
“Get him here.” He’s unconvinced that his brother’s punk kid didn’t do something that caused all this nonsense. The only barrier to Touka putting the whole thing right is that Touka doesn’t talk.
He hasn’t the faintest clue as to why considering he doesn’t know if she used to talk and stopped after Sudare died or if she’d just never talked in the first place, but it’s not like she doesn’t know what’s going on, so he’d let it be.
In this case though, one has to talk to explain why one is beating up one’s cousin.
He assumes she has a good reason though. It’s not as though she randomly goes around beating up other people or he would’ve heard something by now.
Nokidoi is fetched.
Even though other people said that Touka gave him two black eyes, Butsuma personally only sees a few faded bruises so it’s probably an exaggeration.
He wishes Touka had reapplied the black eyes though, his oldest brother’s spawn is obnoxious.
He glares at the boy, who might be ten by now. His oldest brother has three daughters older than the single boy in that particular branch of the family tree from what he recalls. There might even be even more younger children, but he doesn’t generally get invited to things like births by personal choice, so he doesn’t know.
“Tell me,” he says, leaning in very close so he can observe his nephew’s face for lies. “Why’d she beat you up?”
The boy eyes him shiftily.
He knew there was a rat in here somewhere.
“Well?” he asks again, keeping it conversational.
No response. Well then, there you have it. He looks back at Iromoya, who looks like he’d rather not be here. “Where’d you put my kid?” he asks, still conversational, though his anger is just barely kept in check.
Ah, in one of the back rooms even further inside the house. How nice. He goes to look.
There’s a crowd gathered round for some reason, and he shoves a few people out of the way before they let him through to the door, which he bangs on, until one of his cousins stumbles forward with a key.
Oh goody, he doesn’t have to bang the door down.
He gets it open and everyone else also pushes inside with him.
"That girl is a bad omen,” one of his cousins hisses, and he feels fury rise to his face. Unfortunately, fury also looks a lot like he’s turning into a boiled lobster.
"She's mine, so watch your mouth."
Surrounded by all of these people, Touka’s mouth, which had been frowning grimly when he first stepped in, though she’d raced over to him and buried her face in his side, starts to wobble.
She’s only eight. Shouldn’t have to be like this, not that “shouldn’t have to” really matters in life.
“She’s a Senju, isn’t she?” he snaps. “Not only did the lot of you keep a child locked up, you kept your own family locked up. How fucked up is that?”
“We don’t know that!” cries one of his aunts. “Sudare brought her home one day, saying she was his, but you know how Sudare was. He’d say anything about anyone if he felt like it. She’s certainly never talked about where she came from.”
And an uneasy murmur rises.
So that’s what all this is about.
So that’s it. More than the fact that she’s a little bit strange and doesn’t talk and could fill the silence with more silence than most people could fill silence with words, they mutter and withhold because they don’t think she’s Senju. So what if she was born outside the district?
“I don’t give a fuck if her mother was a daimyo’s daughter or a two bit whore in some city Sudare fucked once.” Is it any of their business?
Sudare had said she was his, that’s it, that’s all.
The Old Man had said she was Sudare’s little girl, and anyone with eyes could tell she looked enough like his third brother, the two had the same big eyes and same bone structure though hers is still hidden a bit under being a child, she’s scrawny enough that it pokes through.
He could really learn to hate this family.
He hisses at them, all angry, pent up rage. “You’re all a lot of fools.”
He picks Touka up and stomps back out to the front room, passing Iromoya as he goes. “The next time you lock up any child, I’m going to beat in your face.”
He must’ve looked like he meant it enough, because Iromoya doesn’t protest it, not even weakly.
He stomps out and back to his shack of a house.
“Don’t suppose you’d tell me about why you reshaped your cousin’s face a bit?” he asks, that night after the lights had been blown out. She’d taken to crawling into bed with him, and he’d thought that was odd until he remembered that Sudare had spent most of his time out of the compound in goodness knows where doing the Buddha knows what — murder mostly, his mind helpfully supplies — and Sudare had taken his kid with him.
She’s probably used to just one bed. It’s not like Sudare traveled with a lot anyway.
His third brother had expired in the Senju Medic Hall after managing to drag both himself and Touka home.
He hadn’t known that before, and he wishes he didn’t know it now.
She huffs, though not at him, fussy.
He settles for knowing that she will probably never be able to tell him about it.
The Old Man calls him in the next morning for a talking to, which he bears with ill grace and his eldest brother demands an apology, which he makes with ill temper and no sincerity, but since they do not have the power to compel him any more than that, they accept it with ill faith.
The next time he heads out, he takes Touka with him, since the relatives are already unwelcoming of her enough as it is. Might as well wait for things to cool.