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all this scarcity promotes

Chapter Text

“The surgeon and farmer meet

And each greets the other with a bow

They're kindred instruments, you know

The scalpel and the plow

And in the shadow of the mountain

We work when work abounds

And we wear out all our prayers when the work runs out”

— Dessa, “The Beekeeper,” Castor, The Twin

The combined forces of four clans is enough to sweep back into the capital, banishing the Earth Country invaders, though the old palace and surrounding noble estates had been looted clean of antiques and valuables — but Butsuma didn’t much care about that.

The Aburame-InoShikaCho alliance had retaken the capital and nominally put Tachibana Hikayoshi on the throne as the emperor — though an emperor of barely eighteen isn’t exactly the most awe inspiring sight — but if they could manage to retain the capital and expand outward is a different matter altogether.

To retain the capital and retake the country, they would have to contend with now three invading armies for Lightning Country had also ventured downwards for a share of the wealth, and pacify the commons, who had not been pleased to hear that the Daisei dynasty had been “restored.”

The birds had told him that the Inuzuka were already staging a revolt.

And grain lines into the city had already been partially destroyed or cut.

He is not...surprised, at this point, that nearly a decade into invasion and warfare, that the Inuzuka and others had no patience for attempts at a restoration; he’s just surprised that the original retaking of the capital city had been successful.

“And,” Kazari says, angrily and mostly to Chikagai, “there’s been reports that the furniture was broken! Broken! Not stolen! As if they could steal other valuables and break my life’s work like so much garbage!”

Kazari had spent his life making furniture — elaborate chests of drawers, intricately carved cabinets, chairs of luxury wood, delicate tables, noble women’s makeup boxes, mirror frames, lacquer screens, and wall panels — for upper class clientele.

And he had grown rather wealthy upon that trade, bolstered by the Senju reputation for working with rare and intricate woodcraft. When Butsuma was a child, he’d used to boast that the only aristocrat that did not house at least one piece of his craft was the emperor himself.

Most had wound up in the capital, for very few could afford zitan and huanghuali, or even jichimu or hongmu.

And with the rough way that things had gone inside the capital city down to the very last noble estate…

No, they could never have expected foreigners to treasure the valuable woods and their even more valuable workmanship.

“And yet those items brought so much joy to their owners, once upon a time.” Chikagai, doing his best.

Kazari’s face falls. “Lady Oyama’s daughters loved those music boxes.”

Lady Oyama had been a common patron of various smaller pieces, more decorative than functional, and had commissioned a set of western-type music boxes for her two younger daughters, one on each girl’s tenth birthday.

The talk had been all the rage in the district when the commission had first come in, for no one had ever seen a western music box.

Kazari had made them, however, pristine and beautiful, and they, after being wound, could each play five tunes, mostly classical, traditional works.

He supposes, after everything, it is not the music boxes that Kazari regretted.

No, never the music boxes or cabinets, not tables or chairs, or smashed wall paneling, but the people and families he’d made them for.

What Kazari regrets and grieves is that Lady Oyama, her four sons, and two daughters, are, now that the capital has been retaken and the survivors tallied, confirmed to be dead.

He does not feel much regret for the death of the emperor or for his princely brothers, who’d quarreled over power and lost the empire, the dynasty, and the throne, but he does feel a twinge of regret for the — not innocents, for no one who lives is ever truly innocent — but the bystanders.

No matter how powerful, how noble, how wealthy or blessed or fortunate, they all live on the wind’s edge, on the rise and fall of what heaven and earth declares.

The wind turns, and the world breaks, and they live in troubled times.

“How’s Nokidoi?” he asks, after a brief spell of quiet. “I heard from Iromoya that he’s been apprenticed with you?”

And the conversation turns, if not to happiness, at least to a fonder form of annoyance.

This year, his yearly rotation in the fields comes at harvest time instead of planting, and since Hashirama is already eight years old this autumn, he takes his oldest son with him into the fields for the harvest. Pig follows along behind them, far bigger than Masu ever wished for her to be, but just as well.

Hashirama’s shown no signs of losing interest in his beloved pet, so such as it is, Pig remains.

“Tou?” Hashirama slips a hand in his as they make their way out the door.

By the time he was Hashirama’s age, he’d already been up at the big house for a year, loud and angry, arguing with his grandfather over every little thing.

“What is it?”

Hashirama had always been an easy, pleasant child. If this son took after anyone, it would be Masu, sweet and never asking for much.

“Tobira laughs at me.”

“Does he?”

They weren’t assigned to the rice fields this year.

He hears that Ryou needs help harvesting the pumpkins, back no longer quite in working order after wrenching it earlier in the year.

He could’ve told his second brother this would happen. The man is near fifty and shouldn’t be lifting pottery orders willy nilly even with chakra.

After all, Ryou had never trained to be a shinobi.

“He does,” Hashirama sulks, kicking rocks in their path and ruining his shoes. “I fell down the other day, and he asked me why I wasn’t crying yet.”

He resists the urge to laugh.

He also resists the urge to tell Hashirama to smack the laughing away because the last time he’d thought about this too hard he’d realized that he’d be encouraging his children to attempt killing each other.

Because, after all, if Tobirama came to complain about how Hashirama was smacking him, he’d tell Tobirama to fight back.

And so on.

“And did you cry?” He does not understand Hashirama’s aversion to pain or his reactions to it, but he’s still curious about this time.

Hashirama frowns, cutting a pumpkin off the vine with a knife. “Wasn’t going to, but then he asked and, and—”

“So you cried.” He doesn’t mean this as much judgement, but Hashirama’s face falls anyway.

“I didn’t mean to!”

He ruffles the boy’s hair. “I know.”

“Don’t mean to be a crybaby.” Hashirama rubs at his eyes with his sleeves. “But why would he ask if he wasn’t laughing at me?”

“He wasn’t laughing at you.” Tobirama’s “why” stage had extended beyond the age most children’s do, even if that is very inconvenient. “He just wants to know why.”

Hashirama sniffs, face all scrunched up. “But I don’t know why.”

“Then tell him that.” He wonders how Tobirama would feel about that.

Possibly “But what do you mean you don’t know why?”

Pig has taken their distraction as permission to root around in the pumpkin patch, overturning vines and examining pumpkins with hungry interest.

“You know better than that.” He tells the sow, meeting the animal’s eye when it looks at him. “Stop it, the uncooked pumpkins are for cooking later.”

And no doubt, Pig will get some amount of cooked pumpkin.

Masu’s heart is too soft, and despite being huge, Pig could act surprisingly young and starved if need be.

Pig raises its snout at him and huffs.

But at least it doesn’t try to take any bites out of the pumpkin.

The Akimichi, spooked by his words to them, have taken to being more stupid than normal. Which is to say, more superstitious and likely to blame bad things happening on “the radio ghost” rather than say, switch to using a non radio format of communication.

He doesn’t know how they ended up being so convinced that their security was invincible and that his presence was the work of a ghost of some sort, likely malevolent, that they had to appease. His radio had been able to connect to every one of their dispatches just fine and would sometimes do it on its own without him turning any knobs or dials.

And yet, despite having no proof of there being a ghost, or even that the ghost had gone away — except asking several times if the ghost was still there at every meeting for a year or two, they continued to spout secret information that could get them all killed if someone who really wanted to kill them got ahold of it.

He could applaud them for their stupidity, really.

But he doesn’t. Because it suits his purposes. If they were smarter, he wouldn’t know that the Hyuuga had not fallen in with the revivalist faction, or that they were in fact, in open opposition, cutting supply lines, and slowly encroaching on the territory that the revivalists had reclaimed.

“They’ve grown too fond of their lawlessness.” Chikagai sighs. The radio has been going on for some time now, but it becomes ever more clear that the Hyuuga, drunk on the power of being local warlords, may have — at least in part — fallen in with the Water Country invaders.

And in doing so, selling out their countrymen.

“Hyuuga Heishin wants to be an emperor.” He’s never met the man, but the birds have and each of his informants in that area tell a similar tale. “Of course he would never be satisfied while Tachibana Hikayoshi is still among the living.”

With the boy dead or without significant backing, the Hyuuga eradicate the last vestige of old imperial power, and could stride forward to claim the mandate. And from there, they would pay tribute to Water Country year to year as Fire Country is bled dry.

The clans of Fire Country are like a board of wet sand, none willing to truly resist the invaders.

We might hate each other more than we hate the foreigners.

The divisions and prejudices between Fire Country’s shinobi clans run deep, hatred and grudge going back hundreds of years.

And until the clans come together, Fire Country will never again be liberated — too rich in resources, too lacking in spine to ever stand upright.

“Someone ought to hold him to it.” Chikagai’s frown carves its way deep into his face. “Selling out his countrymen for the sake of personal power.”

He snorts, the corners of his mouth pulling upwards. “Who’s going to challenge him, Cousin? We’re all just trying to survive.”

The years roll by, each one heavier and grayer than the last.

News of the Daisei dynasty’s second fall reaches him not months later, Water Country forces occupying the city.

Aburame Shisen’s body decorates the top of the city walls for two months.

Tachibana Hikayoshi’s corpse is never found.

And for the briefest, barest of moments, he breathes out, feeling that perhaps they’d dodged a blow — and feels shame for that as well, just the briefest flicker.

But he holds to his own, selfish obligations — to not sell out the Senju, to not sell out the Sarutobi or the Nohara, to do what he can in his own land.

The movement of nations, of countries, of the vastness of those pursuits — who ought to rule and how they ought to rule — are not the concerns of the Senju.

He tries to tell himself that to forget the teenage boy who had come down from the highlands to ask him for aid, even though he knows that Tachibana Hikayoshi never would’ve been able to hold the earth even if his uncles could win it for him.

It doesn’t help.

Word arrives from the Uzumaki by bird, sealed three times and edged with deep crimson. He fears the worst upon seeing it, because not even Chikagai could open it.

But the first thing he fears is that Uzushio has fallen to the Water Country invasion as well.

The Terumi had always been greedy for more land.

Their own didn’t support the livestock or agriculture they wanted. So now they turn their gaze south.

He unlocks the letter, pushing and pulling at the puzzle seal until he breaks it, almost by brute force, and scans the page briefly before sitting down with a heavy thud.


Wordlessly, he offers the single sheet edged in red to Chikagai. It contains a few words and an image, a small map outlined in red with the river labeled and the surrounding area outlined in red.

Flooding. There’s flooding coming. The worst the Naka River Basin has seen in near five hundred years.

“But this is—”

“The country’s been lost.” He holds his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair. “And now the earth doesn’t want us either.”

All that they have comes from this patch of yellow earth, the dust, the rust, and the seven hundred years they’d lived here, farming these fields, tending to orchards, building their houses, burying their dead.

All the laughter and sorrow, prayer and worship, sin and suffering, celebration and mourning, all the life they’ve lived and the deaths they’ve suffered, bound within their patch of earth.

The one who inherits the earth must have the strength to hold it, but how to hold it when the very earth itself rebels?

“The amount of water they’re predicting…” Chikagai trails off, lips suddenly tight. “We could lose everything.”

Which is, of course, why their Uzumaki cousins had sent this to them by bird, edged in red so he wouldn’t neglect to read it.

“We can’t afford to lose everything.”

They owe too much to the land, too much to be able to run.

“I—” Chikagai trails off.

“ can go.” He runs his fingers through his hair one more time. “I’ll think of something.”

Wordlessly, Chikagai goes.

He remembers his grandfather sitting here, in a similar chair, now, many years ago, when he was just a small boy, frowning at the accounts, brightening when a letter arrived.

His grandfather had cultivated friends and acquaintances the way other men cultivated land or hobbies or vices, and no matter what the internal contents of his letters were, be they wedding invitations, funeral notices, pleas for help, or unexpected windfalls, he’d been happy to see them arrive.

For over seventy years, the man had stewarded the clan, seen the fortunes of the world rise and fall, a once prosperous dynasty slide slowly towards ruin.

For over seventy years, the Senju had prospered here, under the hand of the longest caretaker they've ever had.

If it comes to ruin on his the Yellow Springs on the road to hell, should he ask for mercy or forgiveness?

And would he deserve either?

“Tou-san?” Tobirama is there, with a large bowl of fish soup, a basket of what must be rice and vegetable dishes on his arm. “Fish?”

He sighs, scrubbing his hands over his face. The map had gone all blurry.

He puts down another black go stone at the southern boundary of the flooding, and then a white one further out.

Their evacuation has to be much further than the flooding will supposedly rise to.

Tobirama, behind him at the table, huffs at him. “Tou-san! Fish!

He waves an absent hand at the child. “Take it back to the kitchen and eat it.”

A small silence, and he almost forgets about it, but very quietly, Tobirama says, “I’ll save some for you?”

He continues thinking, moving the go stones around on his map. Maybe they ought to evacuate east… “It’ll grow cold, just eat it.”

Tobirama shuffles over towards him and tugs on his sleeve. “Tou-san?”

“What is it?” No, the Terumi are east. He won’t send their children and civilians towards the invaders.

No use in leaving if they’ll all die horribly that way.

“Nothing.” Tobirama pouts, brows furrowed and grumpily heads away.

“Take your soup with you.”

Tobirama likes fish soup. No need to let it go to waste on the table.

“HMPH!” Tobirama stomps back to the table and picks up the bowl of soup before very carefully going away again.

He blinks, watching as Tobirama attempts not to stomp his way down the hall, so as to not upset the soup.

What a foolish child. He didn’t like sharing his fish dishes normally even if it’s a weekly affair, and yet somehow, was still upset at the idea of not sharing.

He turns back to his map.

He pauses there, at his desk, looking at the old records, previous years of floods, while not as devastating as in years past, still heavy.

How many deaths have come from the placid looking Nakano? It’d been a pleasant thing all his life, but more superstitious kinsmen have always lit candles, offered up food, had a monk come out and pray when the spring thaw unfroze the surface, little offerings for the goddess of the river.

And how many deaths will the river demand this time, now that it has been hungry for so long?

The clan knows now, the news having spread, Chikagai personally visiting every household to tell them to pack.

Not a household in the district will remain above the floodwater, so everything they did not want to get swept away must be packed.

After the packing, there will be several rounds of channel digging, mostly done by those with the earth affinity, because the expected water level will break the levees, which, for many years now, have not been replaced and have fallen into disrepair.

There are people out there right now, fixing what can be fixed, building them higher as time allows, but it will not be enough, hence the drainage channels, hence the small mountain of storage scrolls being prepared to uptake some of the water as it arrives.

But he pauses, thinking.

None of their neighbors know that the flood is coming.

Not all of them have the resources to pack.

How many deaths will the river demand this time? How many can he prevent?

“You asked to see me, sir?” Sasuke appears, grimy and tired. He’d been out with the levee crew until Butsuma had sent word to go get the boy — not a boy anymore, a man now, twenty-four and still short.

“Yes.” He picks up the note that he’d drafted. “Tie this to the Uchiha pigeon, I presume Tajima will not be a fool about this.”

He can only hope that Tajima will not be a fool.

Not about this.

The man has a clan to look after.

But what Tajima does…and if the Uchiha’s pride will accept this warning, or if the Uchiha even believe him when he says what’s coming — Uchiha are suspicious bastards, they may not believe him — well, that is up to the Uchiha now.

Never let it be said he did not offer warning.

“Sir?” Sasuke looks at him. “For the Uchiha?”

“I would rather they not all drown.” Some in the district would think differently.

Some would, but he does not.

Sasuke ducks his head, suddenly understanding. He is not a bad young man, not really. “Right away, sir.”

He throws on his winter coat and follows Sasuke out. There are levees to patch.

He orders the very young and the very old out of the district to the northeast, and a good number of people to guard them. But he cannot put that thread down either.

If they are hurt by this—

If there is anyone injured or killed because of this—

If some opportunistic enemy takes this as the time to attack a bulk of the clan — while they are displaced and vulnerable…

It will be on his head. He’ll pay for it, every broken bone, every drop of blood.

Itama, shrieking, clings to his leg, wailing something completely incomprehensible. It must’ve been sealing everything in the house including the furniture and the frantic digging outside that’d told the younger children something is very wrong.

“Tou-san, do you really have to stay?” Tobirama, trying to pry Itama’s hands off of the lower half of his changshan. “Can’t you come with us?”

“No.” There is much at play here but—

He has been clan head for near ten years now. He cannot leave anyone behind, cannot stand aside with his hands in his sleeves.

So it was when he was eleven years old, punching the boys who came by to tease Masu for her white hair. Born in mourning, father’s warning. Born in white, mother’s plight. Ill omen, ill omen.

So it was when he was twenty-three, in a roomful of cowards who would not offer Touka a door to return home to. What? We all mute in here?

So it was when he was twenty-seven, the clan head’s position offered to him. I do not cede it.

So it is now, when he is thirty-seven.

He could never learn to turn aside.

“Isn’t it dangerous?” Tobirama manages to pry Itama off of his changshan, his youngest child having cried himself out.

“Yes.” He looks down at the two of them, Hashirama having led Kawarama and much of their belongings neatly sealed away onto the porch already. Masu had checked everything just the once, trusting everything to Touka and Hashirama’s planning, more occupied with seals to save the orchard trees from the floodwater — he wishes he could tell her that it will likely be futile.

“Why do you have to stay?” Tobirama is young yet, which is why he asks.

Children are not selfish by nature so much as they do not understand what effect their actions have on others.

“But if I leave, don’t I leave it to some other man?”

To hold this position is to be the first thing set against the flood.

Azumaya would know what to do if he dies.

His hair is plastered to his ears in the pouring rain, water and mud all the way up to his waist.

The roar of the river fills his ears, the Naka angry and unrecognizable.

Nokidoi had not returned though he was scheduled to after sounding the alarm horn, even though everyone else — beside Touka and Sasuke, both stationed further out — has, and if Nokidoi does not return because something’s happened to him — not all the trees had been cut down if only because their roots would hold the soil from being washed away completely, and their trunks and branches could divert the water, he could’ve had a large branch snap his leg — then Iromoya would never forgive him.

Iromoya would never forgive him if Nokidoi was injured.

“Stupid boy,” he mutters to himself, the words lost in the roar of the Naka. “Why didn’t you come back like I told you to?”

The horn had been sounded well ahead of the first rush of water breaching the levees.

And yet, no Nokidoi.

Probably still trying to patch a hole or something.

The rain coming down in sheets makes it hard to see, and he nearly loses his footing in a particularly heavy swell, but he continues on regardless. He’s not wearing armor, because he doesn’t fancy drowning, but the chill of the meltwater and the chill of the rain means he will be having a very bad day after this.

“Nokidoi!” he roars in the vague direction his nephew had been stationed. “Where the hell are you, you little punk?”

Through the rain, a figure, head bowed over something in the raging water.

He splashes in that direction. The only fool willing to be here, much less standing up, would be Nokidoi.

“Nokidoi!” he shouts, though the wind seems to cast his voice away. “Are you daft? Stop looking at the water!”


Long hair in a low tail.

Was his nephew’s hair always so long?

Streaks of white in that hair.

It’s not right, not right.

He puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder — cold, why so cold — Iromoya?

His oldest brother’s sightless eyes stare back at him, hands wrapped around his sword hilt.

Anija.” And for someone who has always been so loud, his hollow chest rattles with a coffin silence, throat closing in. “Anija.”

And from the sky, the roar of the Naka.

Sheets, sheets of torrential rain.

And in his hollow silence, the golden mockery of memory.

He is four years old, or thereabouts, because he still has the jade horse pendant his grandfather had given him at his birth, which had certainly been lost after he left his childhood home at age seven.

The air is filled with sweet scented smoke, and the heat made his hair stick to his neck as he scooted outside onto the wrapping porch, careful to avoid his father — the man had been in a mood earlier and it has not gotten better since — Iromoya is sitting there, much younger, right arm bandaged and in a sling though he is frowning intently at a block of wood.

“Ani,” he says, wondering if staying outside where it is hotter would be better than the opium smoke indoors. “Are you here for Haha-ue?”

“No, forget about it,” Iromoya waves a hand at him, gesturing for him to come sit down.

The cicadas hum in the distance, where the low hanging treeline offers shade.

Iromoya ruffles his hair when he sits down. “Where’d you get the rip in your sleeve, little pepper?”

He scrunches his nose, still turning the pendant over and over in his hands. “Don’t wanna.”

“Alright, alright you don’t wanna.”

They sit there in silence for another little while, Iromoya staring pensively at his wood block as though trying to divine a form from it. “Say, little pepper, what’s it like at home these days?”

He scuffs the toe of his boot in the dirt. “Bad.”

Another silence, soft like the rush of river water. “Ani, what happened to your arm?”

But Iromoya doesn’t answer that, eyes still far, far away. “I guess all men live on their knees, because on our knees is how we pray. I’ll never be able to stand up. My knees are all I have.”

He doesn’t understand, but then, he wasn’t old enough to have to. “Dumb Ani. You’ve got feet right there.” He kicks Iromoya in the shins.

“Watch it!”

The memory fades.

The wind wails.

The water wails.

He freezes there, next to Iromoya’s corpse, water rushing all around them.

He didn’t die on his knees, he thinks, and in a brief half moment of something he just stands there, as the water rushes all around him, an odd, rushing silence all around him. Of course he’d protest me stationing Nokidoi out here, is his next thought. Followed by, why didn’t he come to yell at me like he always does?

Another swell comes and knocks him off his feet. Branches like claws scratching at his shoulder and arm.

His head falls below the surface of the water, rushing, pushing him further down, as he struggles to regain his footing.

He scrabbles for something to catch ahold of, lungs burning. Air.



He hauls himself upwards, head breaking the surface of the water, gasping. He’d been pushed significantly further down, and the branches had gouged deep gashes in his right side and arm, but he flings them aside into the water.

He coughs up water, still fighting against the current, rain plastering his hair over his eyes. He shakes briefly, though that aggravates his side.

He fights his way back to Iromoya, and claws the sword out of Iromoya’s hands before throwing it away as well and grabbing the man by the arm and forcing the both of them across the watery landscape by force of will.

“Don’t fucking dare,” he mutters, though it’s no use. “Don’t you fucking dare die on me, you coward.”

But even as he says it, he knows it’s no use.

Iromoya is gone.

“He must’ve been hit by debris thrown by the water,” Itokiri tells him, voice quavering, eyes shiny with tears after her hands had stopped glowing green. “There’s a lot of internal damage.” She swallows a sob and turns to him instead. “Butsu-ji, can I look at your arm now?”

He doesn’t really register undoing the front part of his collar and peeling off his right sleeve. He doesn’t register his niece clearing the debris out of his gashes and sanitizing them the best she can before stitching, first the joint of his shoulder and then his upper arm back together.

“Why didn’t he tell me?”

Iromoya had certainly never been shy about telling him what a fool he was before. He’d come to yell about Itokiri, and then about Nokidoi, and then about accepting the Sarutobi, what Touka had done, Pig eating one of his garden plants and pooping on his doorstep in what must be protest though that idea is daft, the list goes on and on and on.

Why not tell him that stationing Nokidoi there was a fool’s move?

Why did he have to go and, and—

Fucking die.

The story’s clear enough as it is. Iromoya had heard where Nokidoi was stationed and decided on his own to take his son’s place. He’d sounded the alarm when the water was coming and then got hit with a rock or a tree trunk or something and had fought his way back into a standing position, driving his sword into the ground to stabilize himself.

And then he’d died there, upright, hands going cold around a sword hilt.

Butsuma coughs.

“He didn’t want to worry you.” Itokiri turns away from him, face partially hidden by her red bangs and hastily put-together bun.

“Bullshit.” Iromoya had never cared about whether or not he was worried.

At times, it felt like Iromoya wasn’t aware that he worried at all.

The scars of their relationship run deep, both sinned against and sinning. He does not know if he would’ve been happier never knowing Iromoya at all.

The rancor of too many years of bitterness has poisoned the well.

He does not know if they would’ve both been better off if they’d never known each other, for he had brought Iromoya no joy.

This he knows.

Nokidoi arrives, rainwater sliding off of the canvas coat he wears, and with a groan, falls to the floor. He had to have heard what happened, but perhaps only seeing is believing.

Butsuma rises, “He did it for you,” which is easy to see and easy to say, but not easy to know. There were some things Iromoya loved, more than face, more than honor, and more than appearances, “do not spit on that sacrifice.”

But that love was never offered to him.

And likewise, he had never offered love to his oldest brother either.

He goes to find the people he has not yet seen.

It is still raining when he goes out, but he does not care. The rainwater carves its way down his face, following the path of his scowl.

He will pay for this later, but at the moment, anything to get out of the stifling tent where Itokiri crouched over the injured and cast glances at the corpse of her father.

Anything to get away from Iromoya’s long awaited son that his brother had died to protect.

Anything to keep running.

The older he gets, the smaller and less willing to gamble he becomes.

Ceding the space his younger self would have bled and died to attain.

Touka runs out from under the canvas tent she’d been sheltering under and throws her arms around him before trying to bundle him back towards something dry.

He shrugs off her hands. “No use,” he mutters. “Your uncle’s dead, by the way.”

“First Uncle?” she asks, voice rusty from disuse, but not surprised.

“Ah.” He agrees. “A fool down to the very end.”

He shrugs his canvas coat off, though little good that does him. He’d been in the expanded river, almost all the way up to the broken levees. And then he’d gone out into the pouring rain again.

None of his clothing is dry anymore.

“More upset than if he were truly a fool, Chichi.”

He has nothing to say to that, and so merely grunts. She passes him clean clothing from her sleeve pockets, silent, but not for long. “Chichi…”

The word quiet, like a sigh.

“What do you want me to say?” he asks. She’s not a child anymore.

Twenty is old enough to have her own opinions.

Where had the little girl no heavier than a wet cat gone?

Where had the years gone? He could not say that thirteen years ago was happier for they’d had plenty of happy times in those thirteen years, much happier than the month they first met, and he remembers the uncomfortable house, the thin rice gruel and fermented cabbage with no small amount of distaste.

Remembers the sharp grief of Sudare’s absence.

He could not say that thirteen years ago was happier, but time comes, and steals into everything.

Nostalgia can make even rice gruel and fermented cabbage a feast fit for a king, if only in memory.

She’s quiet for another bit, standing there as the rain pounds the canvas outside. “Didn’t say you liked him.” She half sighs and leans against his shoulder — the uninjured one — how did she know? “But sometimes, family isn’t about liking.”

No, family rarely is, though he’d been lucky that his children still like him.

He snorts.

He’s supposed to say something here, something, ask a proper question, but he doesn’t, letting it lapse back into silence, the only sound the rain.

The process of reclaiming the district from the floodwaters and clearing the debris needs to happen as quickly as possible.

Most of the district is still under water despite the levees and the hastily dug channels directing water towards the river basin further south and Lake Kozui to the east, though the work of those two projects had allowed about half of their houses and granaries and other buildings to remain above the water.

Their Uzumaki cousins hadn’t even predicted that it would go so well given that most of the earth is still frozen.

They’d turned up just as many solid chunks of ice while digging the drainage channels as they did yellow earth, and there was barely any clay that could be extracted from the still frozen banks of the river.

This flood had been so devastating because of the storm pushing inland, reversing the course of the normally placid Nakano.

That combined with the spring thaw up in the mountains and the heavy winds had led to flooding not seen in this part of the world in over five hundred years.

Nothing had been planted yet. But if news of this storm had come even a week or so later, there might’ve been some who would’ve started their vegetable gardens, if not the rice paddies.

The upper layer of the ground had turned to mud because of the influx of water, but he’s pretty sure that less than a foot down, the ground is still frozen solid. The water will not clear easily back into the river, clogged as it is by branches and smashed houses.

He could hope that the invaders and the Uchiha are just as inconvenienced by the flooding, but given that he still has no news on that quarter, he would rather that they all end up back inside the district, which is more defensible than a collection of canvas tents and temporary wood and seal structures, sooner rather than later.

“Do we have a final tally of how many dead yet?”

Though he has not heard the final count, Iromoya is not the only casualty, just the closest to home.

“Nokita, one of the monks, the Nohara and the Sarutobi have reported casualties as well.” Chikagai sighs, a gray ring of fatigue around his mouth. “And of course, we don’t know how many more as of yet unreported, and how many of the neighbors in the region made it out.”

No mention of the Uchiha, which is just as well.

He’d warned them. What they did with it was up to them.

“Seventh Brother, a moment of your time?”

Very, very few people in the world call him ‘Seventh Brother’ and even fewer of those were women.

“First Sister-in-Law,” Uzumaki Seiun is one of the rare Uzumaki in the district, having moved to Fire Country after marrying Iromoya some thirty-four years ago. To this day, he still has no idea how Iromoya had convinced her of it. Most Senju who marry Uzumaki move to Uzushio. “Of course I have a moment.”

He’d never liked Seiun very much — the woman was twenty-three years his senior and her association with Iromoya as his wife was never something he could ignore — but family binds in a way that goodwill doesn’t.

He’s no longer a child at a too formal wedding.

Her bow is unexpected. “I thank you,” Seiun tells him, eyes downcast towards the mud, “for returning my husband’s body. We understand his death is on his hands and not your own.”

As if words could absolve—

Yes, that had been the other thing that had always chafed about Seiun, wasn’t it?

In her eyes, words absolved.

But words are breath, words are wind, and words cannot erase or absolve.

“I deserve no thanks.” He offers her a hand up though he feels as though his skin is an ill fitting suit the entire time he does so. A little grace perhaps, for his sister-in-law has been recently widowed. If only he could find just a little, a platitude, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ or something otherwise trite. “And no matter whose hands it’s on, it won’t change anything now.”

But when has he ever had even a shred of grace?

He turns away.

“Remind everyone to keep the children where they are,” he claps Chikagai on the shoulder as he passes on his way down to observe the district, “there’s likely to be more bodies in there.”

From people upstream of them, even if it won’t be anyone they recognize.

Even so, not a sight for children or a discovery for them to make.

“And if you don’t rest, I’m going to send Touka to sit on you until you fall asleep.” He throws the last sentence over his shoulder like a barb or a stone.

“Speak for yourself!” Chikagai sputters after him. “Cousin, you get—”

He rounds the corner, the rest of his cousin’s words lost to the wind.

On the first day of the next month, when the Nakano had returned to its regular placid quiet, the rice paddies are irrigated and planted once more, and the damaged buildings more or less roughly restored, Junko comes up to the Big House to report that there is an Uchiha on the rebuilt bridge over the river.

An Uchiha, headed their way even.

Just the one though, which is why Junko finds it so odd.

“What’s he look like?”

Itama tugs insistently on his sleeve. He is drawing some sort of waterfowl with webbed feet but without the long neck.

Butsuma suspects it is a duck.

This is an apology too, of sorts, for Itama had been inconsolable upon learning that he’d been out in the water and that someone had died.

He’ll apologize to Tobirama and Hashirama and Masu later, each in different ways, in increments he can afford.

But for now, Itama’s duck which he pronounces “quite well done” and the Uchiha.

Junko clears her throat. “Rather tall, older than you, sir, with an undercut—”

“Thinner than a stick and horribly whiny?”

Well, at least he knows that Tajima didn’t perish like a fool during the flooding.

“Definitely very thin, sir.”

He supposes that Junko wouldn’t know if Tajima is whiny or not, much less “horribly.” She’s only eighteen, which is younger than Touka when it really came down to it.

“I know who he is.” He rises, bouncing Itama up and down several times into the air, which causes Itama to shriek with laughter. Little risk taker, he thinks, mostly fondly. “Tell Tajima to wait outside the district unless he wants someone to come and stab him several times. He’s not a guest.”

Junko pales. “Uchiha Tajima, sir?”

“What?” He asks, setting Itama down with whispered instructions to go find Niou. “He’s a horrible whiny bastard who’d probably die if you breathed on him too hard.”

More hypocritical an Uchiha I never did see.

Junko is silent for a considerable amount of time. “Sir?”

“Well, get on with it.” Niou — one of Azumaya’s older boys, had taken to coming up to the Big House to help corral most of the orphans into some semblance of order at mealtimes — is someone that Itama ought to know well and have no objections to, but—

“No!” Itama says, still giggling. “Don’t wanna!”

He frowns. “I am going to see someone who ought to know better.”

‘Tama considers this for a moment. “Hug?”

Ah, ransom then, for him having to leave early.

“You’re lucky you’re cute.” He squishes Itama’s cheeks together. “Hug it is.”

“Hug! Hug!” And unlike Kawarama who might’ve wriggled and declared that ‘normal hugs go on forever and ever Tou-san!’ Itama does let go in due time and runs off to find Niou.

He considers his sword rack for a moment, before, with the barest of sighs, picking up his sword.

Might as well figure out what Tajima wants.

He spots Tajima as soon as he crosses the edge of the district, leaning, with pretend nonchalance on the bridge, though the man casts a few too many glances over at the water, still burbling and pleasant.

There’s something funny about an Uchiha of all people being afraid of the water, but his throat sticks together, unable to muster any laughter.

“How long are you going to keep lurking this time?” he asks, mostly because it makes Tajima annoyed. “Until dawn?”

“Trust you to be so fussy, Butsu-chan.” Tajima leans against the rails of the bridge, attempting nonchalance. “Did old age make you soft?”

Age has made him small, not soft. He snorts. “What, like your decrepit bones haven’t seen better days?”

If he’s old, Tajima’s older. And the Uchiha should never forget it.

“I will have you know,” Tajima drawls, leaning his hands on the rails too to ignore their tremors, “I’d still get more than you, every single day.”

He looks the Uchiha up and down, and almost laughs, just the single short bark. “More of what? Starvation diets?”

“I can’t believe it.” Tajima shakes his head. “I can’t believe I’m here to thank a man denser than a mud brick wall.”

“Oh, gratitude, is it,” he mutters. “Where was your gratitude years ago, huh?”

Funny. Tajima had never thanked him for the thing that cost him more. Two weeks of carting the man’s sorry ass through two countries while the man tried his last nerve, and it’s the flood notice the Uchiha comes to thank him for.

“You’re the pettiest man I’ve ever met.” Tajima looks at him, as though trying to dissect something. “Your grandfather wouldn’t’ve done it. No other Senju would’ve done it. Why did you send that letter?”

How trite. Tajima thinks he’s special.

“If you think no other Senju would’ve done it, you don’t know Senju.” He leans against the opposite rail of the bridge, sword hilt visible on his right side. “Your clan has children, doesn’t it? Those inspire compassion or so I’m told.”

There are others who would’ve sent a warning.

Not every family member of his is a rat bastard, though he doubts that—

Oh, but what does it matter?

It’s over now.

Whatever grudge he had with Iromoya, whatever problems. His oldest brother is buried in the dirt they came from and will return to, having spent a lifetime living in a house on that yellow earth.

The one who inherits the earth…

Don’t they all inherit the earth by dying on it and being buried in it?

“Your grandfather wouldn’t’ve done it,” Tajima says again, seemingly spinning round and round on this. “And you didn’t have to send me home twelve years ago.” Round and round and round. Did the Uchiha really not understand it? Not even after a dozen years? “You could’ve left me out there to rot. You didn’t owe me anything.”

What was it that Yukimasa had told him, years ago?

You are so covered in dust. It is the life you’ve chosen.

What was it that his mother had told him about his name?

Butsu-ma. The Buddhist Realm. You were named because your haha-ue hopes you attain something more than this earth and this life. My child, do you understand me?

He had not then.

“To live upright in this world, one must have no debts with heaven or earth.” He has chosen a secular life, the life of a shinobi and all that it entails. But that does not mean that he is no better than a beast.

“You wouldn’t’ve had a debt against heaven if you left an enemy on the other side of a long recognized feud to die. You wouldn’t even have had to kill me yourself, you could’ve just pretended to not see.”

Four things in this world, that separates man from beast — recognizing the passage of time, being conscious of one’s own reflection, feeling shame for one’s actions, and the ability to offer compassion to those different than oneself.

Four flaws that his mother had taught him from the cradle were flaws — to covet what another has, to brag about one’s accomplishments, to shirk one’s work when there is work to be done, and to hold no compassion for that which suffers.

“Is a crime not a crime if no one sees or judges?”

Is a debt not a debt if it is never called by the debitor?

Tajima gapes at him, as though struck. “That was what it was? All this time, that was what it was?”

“What did you think it was?” He’d never been able to keep his hands in his sleeves.

“Leverage.” Tajima continues looking at him as though the world had been tilted, just enough that the Uchiha felt…

Something or other.

“To keep me under your thumb. To heckle me with bills and petty nonsense and never let me know another moment’s peace for as long as I live.”

He snorts. “You do a good enough job of that yourself as you are.”

“My clan used to think I was off my head.” Tajima moves to his other side. The right side, which he doesn’t use to wield a sword if he can help it. “But recently, they’ve started thinking that maybe I wasn’t touched by madness all these years.”

Uchiha, with their superstition and their red swirly eyes.

“What did you want?” He shifts, keeping Tajima’s hands in his line of sight. “If all you wanted was to peel me like an onion, I’ve got better things to do.”

Masu said she wanted to make fried spicy tofu for dinner.

“A treaty.”

That makes him look at Tajima’s eyes — beginner’s mistake, which he is oddly not punished for.

“A treaty,” he says flatly. Oh, the hundred and eight would love to dig their teeth into this.

When it looks like Tajima will not take back his possibly impossibly optimistic attempts at a peace treaty between the Senju and the Uchiha — for what, two weeks of bumping around in a cart and a letter detailing a flood? — he continues, “I don’t control treaties.”

“You’re the clan head,” what a shortsighted view of the world, “if you don’t control treaty proceedings, who does?

“The clan does.” He turns to go. “I’ll have Chikagai write you an invitation or something with dates. Come to the main hall or don’t come at all.”

It has been a very long time since the clan has had to negotiate a new treaty.

He foresees headaches in his future.

Chikagai sighs and starts laying out the brushes and the higher end ink, when he finally tells his cousin about what Tajima had said at the bridge. “I figured the Uchiha wouldn’t understand it.”

“You’re telling me you knew and you didn’t think to put that in a letter somewhere?” He flicks a crumpled paper ball at him. “You’ve written what? Near three thousand letters to the Uchiha over the years?”

Chikagai stands there, grinding ink with a placidly serene expression. “Why would I? It was so much funnier to watch as the man drew crude gestures on the back of his bills and try to mail you his debts wen by wen.”

“You’re horrible,” he mutters.

“You love me for it.” Chikagai sets the ink stick down and goes to select suitable paper for a treaty negotiation invitation.

“No, I don’t.” His map had been returned to the new walls. A pause. A beat. “How did you know why I bothered to cart his sorry ass home?”

As far as he’s aware, Chikagai has never really asked beyond the cursory question about the Uchiha in his bed and the vague surprise at there being an Uchiha in the district at all. But after Tajima had vanished, he’d never bothered to ask again, not even as the bill invoices he’d written climbed into the thousands.

“Let me tell you a story.” Chikagai selects a sheet of paper, holding it up to the light to confirm the fiber quality, its heavy smoothness, and even color. “Once, some twenty years ago, when I was sixteen, I was asked to lead the mission to guard the Amatoya trade route. Do you remember?”

“You never went on it, of course I remember.”

The Amatoya trade route ran through the western badlands all the way to the Land of Wind, four stretches of equally inhospitable wastelands all around three very small oases. It went in the direction of the Uchiha as well.

But the Amatoya spice trade was a lucrative business, back before the empire fell. Someone would have to run it when it ran.

He would know. He spent two months spitting out sand there and two months getting his skin sanded off of him on the way back that year, surrounded by very frustrated and angry cousins.

He had vowed then, still eighteen years old, that he would never again run that mission no matter how disappointed his grandfather would be with him, and indeed, he didn’t.

“Do you remember, you’d just moved out and raised your first house. And I was about to go away in two days, but I came down to your house to sit on your floor?”

He vaguely remembers this. “You didn’t want to go.”

He’d never figured out why, for Amatoya was hard, yes, but Chikagai doesn’t shirk hard things. Years now, his cousin had managed the monthly distribution of rice, pacified arguments and written letters.

Chikagai didn’t shirk, he’d just stood there, frozen.

“I couldn’t go. I didn't have the stomach or the spine to go.” Chikagai is writing now, clear, brushstrokes, left hand holding his right sleeve. “And it was all over the district by sundown. You offered me kindness then.”

“I did?” He doesn’t remember offering kindness really. Just anger.

Of the boys who’d come out of the Big House in their generation, Chikagai had been the most accomplished of the lot. What right did their relatives — none of them shinobi at that — have to run their mouths?

Chikagai snorts. “You offer kindness like it’s some sort of crime, a dirty secret to be kept in the dark.”

“I’m not kind.” He is not always kind.

“Yes, you’ve offended every buddha between here and the Yellow Springs.” Chikagai watches him as the letter dries. “But you’ve always had compassion for the suffering, don’t try to deny it, Cousin. You carry people when they cannot carry themselves.”

What an oddly kind commendation of how he has lived his life.

He finds that it discomfits him.

Tajima brings seven shinobi with him. A variety of men and women, some more easily recognizable as the Uchiha clan’s specialists in several areas.

Butsuma could’ve told him not to bother.

The hundred and eight have their way of picking bones clean that have nothing to do with battlefield prowess.

A set of more nitpicky persnickety old men has never been found before in all the annals of history.

“Well,” he looks at them, as Chikagai organizes some more chairs to be brought in. “Might as well introduce yourselves. We don’t like to talk to strangers here.”

That and it would make the hundred and eight argue at him much less later, since after proper introductions they’d be at least acquaintances, and you’re allowed to insult acquaintances with different words than strangers.

He would know, he’s been insulted plenty of times by this set of old men for even deciding to entertain the Uchiha already.

The woman to Tajima’s left with the magatama earrings of pale jade is Kagiya. The young man to his right with the facial scar is Ontake.

The older man standing behind Tajima is his uncle, Kurokuju. The man flanking him is Kurokuju’s son and therefore his cousin, Ikuguhi.

The woman with the blue hair cords is Toyoku, and beside her, the woman with the red hair cords is Norikura — sisters.

The last man is of indeterminate age, though he introduces himself as Nayago and says nothing more.

“So good of you to bring so many friends.” Tajima does not seem comfortable here. None of the Uchiha are, but some of them hide it better than others.

Chikagai had also dug up various records of treaties Uchiha had made in the past with various branches of the clan, some more recent than others, though none in the past two hundred years.

Uchiha as a whole, do not seem to be very good at understanding treaties.

“They’re not friends.

He can already sense the irritation from the hundred and eight. He’d rather had to persuade some of them to even show up, given how poor the records were of Uchiha honoring treaties. Implying that they were his friends that he’d brought to somehow cow the Uchiha into submission, as if he had the right to use the hundred and eight as a personal weapon, is going to get them nowhere fast.

Behind him, Touka hmphs.

“The Senju clan has a hundred and eight branches,” this is Kazari now, right behind him stands Nokidoi. “Butsuma tells us you want a treaty, Uchiha. We are the ones you treat with, for this clan goes nowhere on the word of a single man.”

Something seems to be clicking.

Kagiya leans forward to speak to Tajima. “They’ve signed treaties with a single man before, Tajima-sama.”

Or maybe nothing has clicked.

“No, we haven’t.” Odaikou rumbles. “You’ve treated with branches of the clan. Any branch of the clan may do as it pleases with treaties and business contracts, should it want them. But since two hundred years ago, we have ceased to even treat with your kind on the level of branch.

“The Uchiha are oathbreakers,” Nekase calls from the back of the hall. But with chakra, his voice carries regardless. “Having broken every treaty they’d ever signed.”

“And you’re saying you didn’t?” Tajima casts a glance at Ikuguhi, who shuts up.

“A treaty made by a branch of the clan does not bind the whole clan.” Chikagai comes around, having drafted a preliminary number of demands the various branches had agreed on. “As has been said before, we are not nobles, content to follow the word of a single man.”

“What,” Tajima asks, very quietly, because he seems to have gotten it, if none of his kin has “does your clan call ‘a branch?’”

This he knows very well. “A man, his wife, and any descendants he may have therein.”

When his grandfather had lived, his branch of the family had encompassed all of his grandfather’s children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren in turn.

When his grandfather had lived, their branch of the family had numbered in the hundreds.

When his grandfather died, his branch of the family had been cut to only him — for his father was no longer living — Masu, and his children. His brothers and uncles had also, when his grandfather died, found themselves heads of much smaller branches of the clan.

“The branches split every time the old head dies.”

In this way, no branch of the family may hold power for long. At the most, one lifetime, no more.

In this way, the tree grows and changes, ever shifting, ever mutable, branches are born and branches die, branches split and branches merge.

This...does not appear to be the answer the Uchiha had expected.

It is, however, what they are getting.

“I would be happy to recite any relevant sections of the legal code should you need it.” Chikagai smiles, though it looks more like a knife than anything else, razor thin with a sharp gleam. “And if you stay the night, I would be happy to provide you with a copy of our most up to date clan by-laws.”

This does not appear to make the Uchiha very happy either, but Tajima glares hard enough to keep the rest of his kinsmen in place.

A pity really.

Now they’re really going to have to listen to every branch of this family air their grievances about Uchiha in the past century or so or older if anyone is deeply into grudge keeping, which wouldn’t be a rarity.

He feels the beginning twinges of a headache start to gather in his temples.

Tajima and the others end up staying the night. Not much had been accomplished except that Tajima has to borrow the Uchiha pigeon to inform his wife and other family members that he is not being forcefully detained or otherwise threatened.

Just that the proceedings were proceeding and to, for the love of all things to not come and create a problem.

Currently, the Uchiha are perched there, on the wrapping porch after dinner as Niou airs out rooms for all eight of them, trying to figure out what they ought to do next.

He exits the house to get away from Pig, who, very recently, seems to have developed the ability to speak.

Unfortunately, Pig follows him, muttering under its breath about eating the rude guests.

“Hashirama would be very disappointed in you.”

Which is true.

Hashirama would be heartbroken to learn that they had to make Pig into sausages because Pig ate an Uchiha who shouldn’t’ve been eaten and restarted a four hundred year old feud.

“Hashirama has no power over me.” A big fat lie. Hashirama’s wobbly lip could manipulate Pig just like how Pig’s manipulative pleading face could make Masu give it more food.

“Keep telling yourself that.” He rolls out his shoulders. “Maybe one day, it’ll come true.” He turns to the Uchiha. “It’s dinnertime.”

Masu had been very insistent upon that point.

“Tell them that the inside of the house is safe.” Really, at this point, it’s only the not-Tajima Uchiha who look antsy and ready to jump out of their skins at any given moment.

“No one will come inside the house to try and kill you unless they want to kill me first.”

Somehow, this does not seem to settle the Uchiha any more.

The peace talks take fourteen days of arguing, and by the end, he’s pretty sure that the hundred and eight have had their fill of arguing and hearing their own voices.

But the Uchiha leave with a piece of paper stamped with a hundred and nine stamps, and the clan’s longest feud comes to an end.

“Do you think that it will hold?” Masu asks, the night after the Uchiha leave, disappearing back across the river like late summer mist. “This treaty. The Uchiha have never properly honored their treaties before.”

“I don’t know.” The years had been kind to the two of them, in ways that it had not been kind for either of their parents — his, lost to the cruel and petty man that was his father, hers, lost the year after her father died when she turned ten.

But the years they’d been married had been kind to them.

“Only time can tell that.”

She comes to sit beside him, leaning against his shoulder. “The clan needs time too,” she says, folding their hands together. “To unlearn and learn again.”

They sit without words on the wrapping porch for another moment, listening to the summer hum of the cicadas.

“Touka’s seeing someone,” he says and wishes he feels less irate about it. “Won’t tell me who.”

There’d been a brief crush on Sasuke once upon a time, but he’s almost certain it’s in the past now.

This is a new someone, who she refuses to let him know about, mostly because he’d told her that Sasuke was a fool — which is true.

Masu laughs, the sound bright and warm. “I’m sure we’ll meet him in due time, Butsu.”

“Probably another stuffing headed fool,” he mutters, wishing he was less irate, but failing. “She has horrible taste in men.”

“I don’t know,” Masu counters, something slightly wicked in the shape of her smile. “I liked Sasuke.”

He glances at her, the corner of his mouth twitching. “You, Senju Masugumi, also have horrible taste in men.”

She does laugh again at that, shaking with unspoken glee. “How horrible,” she agrees. “The most horrible.”

And time has been kind to them.

He hopes it always will be.

“The stranglehold on the river trade is crippling us.”

The common thread of the letters between Tajima and himself is the Hoshigaki occupation of the Muromachi and the Sanzu crossings to the north.

The clan cannot grow or make everything it needs.

And he doubts the Uchiha across the river can either, given the note of fatigue in Tajima’s letters.

“How many men do they have, by your estimation?”

Four hundred, perhaps.

It’d been more people than he was willing to field for one mission.

To overwhelm the Hoshigaki with numbers, they would have to leave a significant portion of the clan undefended.

But if they could join hands with the Uchiha…

“If you told me when I was a child that I would consider working with a Senju…”

“Oh, don’t get ahead of yourself.”

No, tell his younger self that, and he would’ve laughed whichever drunkard that was out of the restaurant.

“You know it’s only a matter of time before…”

“They come further south.”

The Hoshigaki are only eighty kilometers north of the north border of the district.

Even now, some of the clan’s most valuable trade is cut off, leaving craftsmen out of work.

“How many men do you think you can field?”

And that’s the question, isn’t it?

But even with their similar convictions, it takes a year.

A year of lessened hostilities, a year of honoring a treaty, another year of trading letters, going back and forth, retreading the same, tired ground as salt and coal and rubber grew scarce before they can come to an agreement of some kind on what to do with the Hoshigaki in the river crossing.

It takes a year, but the time comes, inevitable as the course of the river.

He rolls out the map of Fire Country, Touka and Sasuke at his side. “The Uchiha have promised a hundred and fifty men.”

And they will field an equal number.

Once the Hoshigaki stranglehold on the Sanzu crossing is broken…

There are only two hundred or so men at the Muromachi crossing.

“Will we be meeting them before we head out?” Sasuke frowns, tugging at one of his ears. “If we confirm, and head at the Hoshigaki from both directions…”

Caught between two forces, they will either be forced to flee or be slaughtered.

“Hm.” Touka traces the paths they will be following up north to the Hoshigaki.

“Sasuke will stay behind.” He holds up his hand to forestall the protest. “I trust you with the protection of the clan.”

“Sir!” No, he doesn’t expect Sasuke to be happy. “We can’t lose you.”

He twists Sasuke’s ear. “I haven’t had my fill of living yet.”

“Ow!” Sasuke wails, momentary sorrows forgotten. “Sir!”

And momentary terrors fade.

Through the mass of water and bodies — Tajima, with his longer, single bladed sword, eyes red. He bashes the shark charging him over the head with the hilt of his sword with enough force to stun, and somehow, now he and Tajima are back to back.

“Fancy seeing you here, Butsu-chan.”

This melee will be over soon.

Then they can tend to the injured and bury the dead.

“Go to hell.”

And maybe, when this is all over, there will be fewer troubles in their troubled times.

Touka comes to find him when it’s done, a gash over her right eye that bleeds freely, but nothing that the medics can’t fix. “They’re gone. Took more and less than I thought.”

Reaching out to the Uchiha took more.

But only one battlefield… where something might be won and all might be lost.

That took less than he’d expected.

They’ll make their way home in due time, where Masu will fuss over them, where Chikagai is waiting, where Sasuke will no doubt sob great big tears of relief, and various relatives will pick over this choice with a fine tooth comb.

In due time, but not yet.

Nothing’s over. Nothing’s ended yet.

But there’s a start.

There’s a start, he thinks, looking at the clean water running downstream, back to where Itama and Kawarama might be playing.

There’s a start.

“Ah,” he answers her, “We might make something of this world yet.”